Even before Alt-J’s debut An Awesome Wave took home honors with the 2012 Mercury Music Prize (the panel-voted award given to the “best” record to emerge from the UK every year), there had been considerable buzz about the band on this side of the Atlantic. By the time their record finally hit stateside in September after being released several months earlier abroad, its arrival received the kind of attention few debuts ever see. It found the Cambridge-based quartet fully formed, with an original sound that was at once catchy but strange, accessible but experimental — whether those qualities are mutually exclusive or not is open for discussion. Just how accessible has Alt-J’s unlikely sound been found to be? Winning the Mercury Prize is one thing, but becoming mainstream department store soundtrack fare during the busy U.S. Christmas shopping season is entirely another.
It’s not difficult to imagine Alt-J playing larger U.S. venues, and indeed those dates are coming this spring. We were lucky enough to catch them in the comparatively small confines of Portland’s Star Theater, the band at that point nearing the end of a U.S. tour that was booked pre-Mercury Prize. Bassist Gwil Sainsbury and drummer Thom Green were battling nasty flu symptoms, but soldiered through along with Gus Unger-Hamilton on keys and Joe Newman on lead vocal and guitar to deliver three standout cuts from An Awesome Wave.