Photo: Brian Valdizno
In a scene where it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish between bands, every little thing counts. Especially names. If you’re debating that extra umlaut or question mark, just take it. Anything to separate you from that other all-girl four-piece with an 80’s drum machine.
On Thursday, San Francisco’s beloved Popscene welcomed two bands of eccentric appellation: Los Angeles’ Wildcat! Wildcat!, a band so good they named themselves twice (!), and England’s ∆ or Alt-J (Mac users: hit Alt-J on your keyboard now and make the connection). Those unaware of the situation or the artists were reduced to loud vocal inflections of the former, and reasonable guesses of “delta?” for the latter. Yet, names, symbols and haphazard punctuation aside, these bands could flat out play.
In a jam-packed August lineup, Wildcat! Wildcat! and Alt-J reaffirmed Popscene’s reputation as the Bay Area’s place for up-and-comers, taking to the stage late Thursday after Erika Spring. One-third of Au Revoir Simone, Spring was cut straight out of an Urban Outfitters catalogue, over-sized coke-bottle glasses and all. She was delicate, but nondescript, outsourcing rhythm duties to an iPod rather than a drummer, with only a guitar player and a swath of crowd members shuffling by to keep her company.
The sold-out Popscene crowd began to fill out past 10:30, gathering their obligatory pre-set drinks before filing toward the stage for Widcat! squared. Based on released material, the LA band seemed ill prepared for a San Francisco debut. “We only have two songs,” joked singer and keyboardist Jesse Taylor.
But, in today’s day and age, two songs (the band has actually has three) and a bit of buzz can get breach the threshold of popular interest. With hype powered by sleek music videos and a unique sound whose closest comparison is the emotive lovechild of Michael Angelakos (of Passion Pit) and Mark Foster (of Foster and the People), Wildcat! Wildcat! entranced a following at Rickshaw Stop with layered falsettos of Taylor and bassist Michael Wilson and synth-heavy melodies. “The Chief” delighted, taking the crowd through rich vocal rises and resolves (and one sexy saxophone cameo), while the quartet’s unorthodox cover of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” gave the masses something to mouth.
Overcoming “technical difficulties” and awkward between-set cliches, Wildcat! Wildcat!–even with such little material–lasted a good 45 minutes. They hammered home the very popular “Mr. Quiche” as well as new song “Holloway,” before setting the table for Alt-J, who was far and away the main attraction.
Hailing from Cambridge, Alt-J were faultless, appearing on the Popscene stage a bit past midnight to embark on their San Francisco debut. Leaving little room for pleasantries, the band immediately jumped into a set that borrowed heavily from May release, An Awesome Wave, tackling “Intro” and the unreleased “She She She,” a vocal duet of sorts between lead man Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton. The sultry “Tessellate” perked the ears of the crowd, as the first recognizable hit, but it was the tribal “Fitzpleasure” that exhibited the band at full power. With Newman garbling lyrics as though speaking in tongues, Alt-J mixed rim taps, droning synths and the infectious sound of castanets–perfected by bassist Gwil Sainsbury–to sway a tipsy crowd to oblivion.
With nothing matching the mid-set energy of “Fitzpleasure,” Alt-J closed out the second half of their debut on a lighter, but still gratifying note. “M∆tilda,” the quartet’s best impression of a love song, floated like the smoke above the rafters of Rickshaw Stop, while “Breezeblocks” was meatier, complete with xylophone and a three-person vocal round. Closing out with “Taro,” Alt-J, like so many U.K. Popscene performers before them, were always appreciative. “To have one of the biggest crowds we’ve ever played for in a city we’ve never been is amazing,” said Newman.
For Alt-J, it only gets bigger from here.
Alt-J (∆) Setlist
She She She
Wildcat! Wildcat!- The Chief (download)