Forget the big festivals and the bright lights: The xx are still at their best slinking around the intimate confines of a mid-size club.
Although The xx have mainly played massive festivals in recent years, there’s a clear precedent for their return to a club setting: the band played seven sold-out nights at London’s Brixton Academy to kickoff the I See You world tour, back in March 2017. It was somewhat poetic that they should choose to end that fifteen-month tour by playing three nights at the English venue’s American counterpart, the 9:30 Club. On last night’s evidence, it’s clear that no matter how big the band get, few acts are as good in a club setting as The xx.
Last night’s show felt like a homecoming or coronation, despite the band’s English origins. The 9:30 Club was somehow even more densely packed than a normal sold out show, and the energy in the room was buzzing and joyous as people poured in. The anticipation hung in the air until the opening horns of “Dangerous” cut the tension, resulting in loud, unbridled screams of joy. Twelve-hundred People sung along, swayed, and danced to every word for the duration of the ninety minute set, and then hollered for more as the house lights came up after the encore around 11pm, to no avail.
The xx remain an incredibly polished live act – even leaving room for improvisation, every single bass riff, looped percussion groove, or lassoed guitar riff falls precisely where it should. There’s a certain economy of sound and effort, and a conscious understanding of their music’s emotional arc. The audience rose and fell in unison with the music last night, and almost a decade into their career, it feels surreal to think that a trio of teenagers seemingly manifested out of thin air back in 2009 with songs as emotionally and sonically complex as “VCR”, “Basic Space”, and “Islands”. Romy and Oliver’s voices – as writers, and as singers – have matured and deepened somewhat in the intervening years, as has Jamie xx’s production. So much of the band’s music has an organic quality to it, with kick drums emulating pounding heartbeats and tom-toms sounding like footsteps shuffling across a dance floor, but there’s also room for the quieter, more introspective emotions to come to light. In particular, Romy’s solo rendition of “Performance” was powerful and heart wrenching. The combination of her Spaghetti Western guitar licks and the pleas of desperation in her voice are enough to disarm even the most entrenched skeptic (not that there seemed to be many non-believers present).
In my review of their show at Merriweather Post Pavilion last year, I noted how much of the band’s sound had evolved to reflect the kind of music Jamie xx has released as a solo artist. This remains the case, although Oliver and Romy’s prominence and involvement shouldn’t be understated – their voices give so many of their songs the requisite emotional heft, as do their languid bass and guitar riffs. However, it’s clear that Jamie’s star as a solo artist and producer continues to shine brightest, and somewhat fittingly, his set up was the biggest it’s ever been on stage for an xx performance in DC – potentially a holdover from the festival and stadium shows of the last fifteen months. The producer and percussionist was surrounded by all kinds of acoustic and electronic drums and synthesizers, with a rig that included a full drum kit, a Caribbean steel drum, and several different pedals for looping. Seeing him layer rhythms and sounds over each other was truly spectacular, and a reminder that there’s considerable human effort behind the sounds we take for granted on their albums.
As the band prepares to play two more nights at DC’s most hallowed venue, it’s an exciting time to reflect on The xx’s trajectory and growth. Despite the thousands of shows in hundreds of cities around the globe, it’s exciting to see that they haven’t forgotten how to blow away rock club audiences on the quality of their music alone, when all the bells and whistles have been stripped away.