Written By Cory Healy
Photographs by Elizabeth Maney
Two Fridays ago I had the immense pleasure of seeing Alter perform at Rockwood Music Hall. The venue was jam-packed with sweat, body heat, and people wriggling all over the place.
They opened with two banger tracks “Menace” and “Bare,” and the energy felt in the crowd was just as lively as it was among the ensemble. One look at any point of the night tells you that Alter knows how to have fun on stage while playing their hearts out, experimenting with new sounds, and blending melodies and samples that any ordinary person wouldn’t ever think to put over barebones hi-hat or gospel-style sound.
But these aren’t ordinary people. Collectively, they are a force of music to reckon with, that command your attention and make you forget that you’re in a sweltering sweatbox of a venue until all dancing ceases.
Alter is made up of Wolf Weston on lead vocals, Jason MacDermott on drums and Steven Dewey as producer/engineer. Like a big chunk of the attending audience, I’m fortunate to share the same alma mater (Ithaca College) with the band. Alter has been in NYC for just over a year, and have done several shows throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan; as the jam-packed room can testify, Weston and company know how to draw a crowd of new faces and loyal followers.
Tonight they were joined by Namarah McCall, who was in the same acapella group with Weston for three years. McCall is a touring member who makes occasional appearances whenever possible. “She’s probably one of the best friends I’ve ever had and one of the most versatile singers I know,” Weston said. “It just made sense for her to join as support, with the added bonus (for me) of the freedom to write the gospel-level wailing harmonies, slinky rhythms, and competing lines that give me life.”
McCall’s backing and layering prowess was super evident on “A Press to the Chest,” which was one of the first songs Alter wrote as a trio. It also displays some of Dewey’s production wizardry, jaunting from static 8-bit to minimalist deep bass groove at the blink of an eye while Weston croons “I may have told lies / These are grievous times / Can you remember all the stars in our eyes?” Weston’s truly a livewire powder keg here, singing through Dewey’s dystopic distortion that later becomes punctuated by a shamisen-sampled bridge. Accompanied by MacDermott and McCall, this was easily one of the best tracks of the night.
Up next was a cover of Cold War Kids’ hype “Hang Me Up To Dry,” the only cover on the bill. This cover showed the kind of mechanics running Alter and how it translates to songs we already know and love. Alter collectively syncopated and chopped up the theme, and at one point Weston threw down a freestyle rap as a chorus; they really made the song feel like one of their own—a remix rather than a cover.
The working relationship between producer Steven Dewey and Wolf Weston is most certainly a match made for the ages. I can’t tell you how many times I was wowed by Dewey’s innovation and ability to mash-up beats, samples, loops into a natural match with Weston’s style throughout the performance. In fact, Alter began as just the two of them for a final project for Dewey’s Sound Recording Technology program. Weston said that she would “write in a bunch of non-congruent styles while Steve got to flex as an engineer and producer,” which eventually gave way into something bigger and more cathartic.
Before graduation, Weston, Mac and Dewey contacted several music peers for second opinions outside themselves. Based on feedback, and after taking a hard look at their future goals, Weston told me that they all realized Alter was a thing they needed and couldn’t give up.
“I pretty much made the decision to move to Nashville to where Steven was living right after graduation,” said Weston, “but eventually we decided on NYC instead. I’m from here, we have support here, and I think this is one of the only places we could continue to experiment the way we are and still have an audience.”
That statement definitely rang true for the crowd’s engagement and euphoria.
Next up was a freshly debuted song, “hold,” which was born out of an article by The Establishment with the premise of ‘what black lives looks like before they end,’ and the Black Lives Matter movement at large. Weston told the hushed audience “we wrote [hold.] from that space and we hope somebody fucks with it.”
It began with an excerpt of a speech by James Baldwin: But what one does realize is that, when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, when you do that, without knowing the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.
Wolf internalizes that message into one about self-love in the face of brutality, making it a beautiful personal statement that goes beyond artistry with a mixture of pain, frustration, endurance and—most importantly—hope. The minimalist approach, solely using reverb, hi-hat, and vocals, drew out maximum emotions and feelings.
Based on the silence in the room as they performed, the air sucked out of the room right as she closed the track, and the love poured out through thunderous applause, it’s safe to say we all fucked with it.
“hold.” was prefaced with two poetry interludes written by Weston, which she changes up every performance; I transcribed “interlude 2 – untitled” below with her permission:
“love was the egg,”
guess it cracked soon as we got it.
that thin shell,
a heart that could have started,
to beat inside the artist,
secrete the love around it,
cause in terms so well absconded,
we gave up the hope around it.
am I wrong?
have I run?
or am I still under your thumb?
…. bruising in infinite cycles?
i beat what I’m holding like it’s a drum.
are we back at stage one?
s e l a h
Jason MacDermott, Wolf Weston, Steven Dewey
Before she began singing, Weston discovered spoken word poetry while a sophomore in high school. She immersed herself in Def Poetry Jam, slam competition videos, and followed individual poets like Rafael Casal, Mayda del Valle, Beau Sia, and Shihan; Weston told me she performed a bunch in high school “but eventually just stopped sharing for assorted reasons—mostly surrounding intense anxiety.” A lot has changed since then and now, the specter of performance anxiety has been gone for a very long time based on her high-energy performance and vibe. “I think it’s the support of my bandmates, and the normalization of poetry’s presence in modern music that’s making me bold enough to include my other writing(s) in our sets,” Weston added.
Jason MacDermott shined on “Rise,” crashing cymbals over overdrive guitar and deepened voice samples. I’m convinced that Wolf Weston can make an entire acapella album just by herself, and provide just as much depth, weight and a wide variety of emotion of a supergroup. That’s the power of Weston’s voice and delivery.
“Night Ringa,” another never-before-played song, rung out as a hot dancehall and reggae-infused jam. The song was inspired from both a friend’s stalker ex-boyfriend and a riff of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” celebrating the girl who went out with her friends and did things she wanted to do with her life rather than wait by the phone for a man. Dewey’s production choices were eclectic and refreshing, with pan flute and xylophone mashed with Weston singing “Why are you still calling me / Why are you still following me? / I don’t need you.” MacDermott slinked in a sick snare edge rhythm that matched up with Weston and McCall’s syncopated call and response.
The exuberant “Private I” led off with a Nile Rogers riff and never relented, sending the highly energetic crowd into a dance frenzy. There was a lot of clapping and a high amount of energy from the crowd in response to the band. At the song’s close there was high demand from an encore; which Alter happily obliged with their first-ever song “Mum’s the Word.”
“Come hug up,” Weston invited the crowd at the close of their set. “We’re super sweaty, but come hug after.”
Altogether, the night was a splendid showcase of style dexterity and good vibes. I urge y’all to check them out online or at their next show.
Alter plays Arlenes Grocery September 28, and will be closing the residency of Danielle Grub at 10pm.