Folk indie band Alt-J won this year’s Mercury Prize for best album of 2012 at a ceremony in Camden’s Roundhouse on 1 November which was shown on Channel 4 the following day. The Roundhouse and a Channel 4 broadcast were new experiences for the Mercury which had previously been broadcast by the BBC from the Grosvenor House Hotel. Last year’s second presenter, Lauren Laverne was promoted to the top slot in place of Jools Holland (whose Later… competed with it on the Friday night TV schedules). Her own previous subordinate slot was occupied by the new Radio 1 breakfast, Nick Grimshaw.
The shortlist has been widely criticised in the media, including The Founder, for being safe and a bit radio-2-friendly. It looked momentarily as if that complaint was going to be met head on by the opening act, Plan B’s exuberantly brilliant and edgy performance of the title track of his nominated album, ill Manors (my own favourite for the prize). Yet at its conclusion, there was only a smattering of polite applause from the dinner tables scattered throughout the Roundhouse, and a palpable sigh of relief from the audience as if signalling that now that the edgy intruder, the only act not likely to get any airplay on radio 2, was out of the way, the proceedings proper could begin.
I will not list every other performance of the night, because on the whole they simply reinforced the feeling of safety and blandness. I will pick on three acts, the winners, Alt-J, and two acts that confounded expectations in opposite ways.
Django Django followed Plan B. I like their album a lot despite the fact that, unlike Plan B, it is a “mature” sound (fair enough, I’m a “mature” student) that seems to fit with this year’s judges’ strategy for nominations. They chose to play ‘WOR’ already one of the less impressive tracks on their eponymous debut album, and played it without the little passion that is in the album version. The inevitable polite applause followed.
On the other hand, jazz trio Roller Trio, whom everyone dismissed (including The Founder) as an interesting jazz act that couldn’t win, produced the performance of the night, on sophisticated drums (Luke Weddin-Williams), intricate electric guitar (Luke Wynter) and discordant sax (James Mainwaring) with ‘ The Interrupters.’ The crowd were rapturous for the only time that evening, which could be dismissed as the natural joy of a Radio 2 audience, except that I (who rarely listens to either Radio 2 or jazz) also thought it was a fantastic performance. Had the judges been required to take live performances into account, Roller Trio could well have stolen the prize.
Alt-J performed the haunting ‘Tesselate’ twice in the evening, both as part of the normal line-up and again once they had won the prize. It’s hard to fault the precise and subtle percussion from Thom Green, Joe Newman’s Radiohead-like/lite vocals and the ghostly, high-pitched backing vocals from keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton. The performance attracted polite applause, and their subsequent acceptance speech and interview was an unusually polite, unexcitable affair.
From the perspectivce of seeing it on TV, it is not clear that the move to the Roundhouse is a successful move. The Roundhouse is a tricky venue to get right in terms of sound (I’ve seen both great and horrendous gigs there) and, on TV at least, the Mercury Prize sounded more muted than it has done in its earlier Grosvenor House setting. It certainly contributed to the subdued feeling of the whole event, but nothing like as much as the nominated acts and the judges who chose them.