All photos: Katherine Gaines
The only time I’ve seen The xx was in March 2010. The trio, who appeared as introverted on stage as they seem in interviews, played as good a show as one could expect from a young, gloomy buzz band in a famous synagogue. I even recall they started the show with an impish “Shalom,” an interjection that was extremely out of character. But what I took away from the show at Sixth & I is that even though it was obvious that they were indeed The Next Big Thing, their presence was still awkward and fumbly, like a young lover who is full of desire but lacks experience. Therefore, as I prepared to see them three years later, the question on my mind is how a group whose mystique relies on soft-spoken intimacy responded to playing to ever-growing crowds and universal adoration.
Austra, a dark wave quartet fronted by Canadian electronic musician Katie Stelmanis opened. As a fan of their debut album Feel It Break, it’s sad to report their performance was a considerable disappointment. Perhaps a reason why Stelmanis’s upper-octave caterwauling was rendered incomprehensible was due to the venue’s horrible mixing. The drums sounded like shoe boxes, and Ram Head Live’s layout, which resembles a 1990’s Nickelodeon game show, further distorted the group’s synth-gothic stylings. What really stood out was Stelmanis’ tunic, which I can hope she patterned after Malon, the farm maiden from The Ocarnia Of Time.
As the band played, the audience gawked onward, flatly smiling as if they were corralled to an artsy friend’s performance piece. As Stelmanis strutted around stage singing “Beat and the Pulse,” I wasn’t sure if she was more awash in bass or lipstick. The highlight of the half-hour set was a satisfactory rendition of “Lose It,” the only song that managed to successfully fuse goth’s atmosphere with synthpop’s essential danceability.
Shortly after 9:30, a projector above the crowd shone the oil-in-water blot image onto a screen, a warped version of the cover image from their new album Coexist. The trio that is The xx then took the stage: guitarist Romy Madley Croft to the left, bassist Oliver Sim to the right, and producer Jamie Smith in the middle, flanked with a battle station of keyboards, toms, MPCs, cymbals and steel pans.
From the opening chords of “Angels,” it was immediately apparent that the years of touring and expanding spotlight on the all black-clad trio hardened them into dutiful performers. Throughout the evening, The xx delicately balanced their signature moody headphones minimalism with a need to dazzle their growing fanbase. In 2010, the three were statues, barely straying from their microphones. Years later, the lanky Sim pranced around stage, weaving his bass through the air like a chainsaw. Croft cracked a smile between songs. Smith, stayed mostly in the background, but even he, the most quiet and shy of the three, took center stage for a shining moment.
This show was a make-up for a canceled date due to Hurricane Sandy, and Sim let it be known how thankful it was that the very sold-out audience chose to spend their Monday night with the group. Sim put his bass down and took over as a Morrissey-esque frontman to croon “Fiction.” This was followed up with a slowed-down version of “Crystalized,” which eventually gave way to a 4/4 dance beat. I was also surprised to hear a remixed version of “Chained,” to which Croft admitted the group was still trying to nail down.
The evening’s highlight was “Reunion,” one of the several songs on Coexist that feature Smith’s steel pans to underscore Sim and Croft’s back-and-forth tension. However, about halfway through “Reunion,” Smith flipped the beat to his own Balearic house-tinged single “Far Nearer,” with his band mates filling in the vocals: “I feel better when I / you feel better when I / I feel better when I have you near me.” It’s a reassuring sign that the band elects to acknowledge the work of Smith, who moonlights as one of the more promising young producers in the London electric music scene under the pseudonym Jamie XX. I would have been thrilled to hear them cover of “I’ll Take Care Of You,” also produced by Smith, but I don’t want to sound greedy.
The “Far Nearer” segue was the evening’s transition from a restrained affair into a burgeoning dance party. “Night Time” turned Ram’s Head Live into a discotheque. The audience was covered in lasers during “Swept Away,” which featured Sims and Croft playfully parrying each other like fencers. The considerable amount of lasers, fog and shadow made the venue resemble the mirror room from Enter The Dragon as they played “Shelter.” A perfect, sing-a-long rendition of “VCR” was followed up with a fumbled version of “Islands,” the difficulty either resulting from a stray laser or Smith’s thumbs mucking a beat from his sampler. (Araabmuzik he is not).
The trio finished their main set with fan favorite “Infinity,” concluding with a light show freak out during the “Give it up / I can’t give it up…” portion that would send an epileptic into fits. The instrumental “Intro” finally made its appearance in the encore, as did “Tides,” which is probably the only song of the evening that I can honestly say was anything less than fantastic. The last song of the too-brief hour- long set was “Stars,” a track that I’ve long considered too slow and lacking in energy. However, I now realize that “Stars” was a trap. The xx lulled the audience in with the soft song, only to pound them with flourishes of bass so massive that it lodged phlegm loose from my throat, causing yours truly to break into coughing fits. To put it another way, The xx were so good, they made me physically ill.