October 22, 2012

At Congress Theater, The xx doesn’t skip a beat

A thunderous force shook the theater, and a billowing fog rolled in. The lights dimmed ominously; screams could be heard throughout the venue. This past Saturday indie pop band The xx performed their haunting, ghostly-bare melodies before a sold-out show at the Congress Theater. And it’s not even Halloween yet.

The xx, comprised of members Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith, broke out in 2009 with their self-produced album, xx. The album spent 87 weeks on the UK Albums Chart, and, as a result, the band played a few of the most popular North American music festivals in 2010—including Coachella, Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits. The group’s second album, Coexist, released earlier this September, has also garnered critical acclaim, reaching #5 on the Billboard 200 and #1 on US Independent Albums. Band member Jamie Smith, who also works under the moniker Jamie xx, produced the largely successful single “Take Care” from Drake’s album of the same name last year.

The show began with 2:54, another male/female duo from London, who played an opening set that sounded something like an indie rock Evanescence—it did not exactly fit with the dreamy dance rhythms the audience was anticipating. But Barcelona-based act John Talabot (often mistakenly billed as the Catholic singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot) performed an excellent DJ set, switching back and forth between keyboards, laptops, cymbals, drum pads, and mixing boards to create a collage of captivating beats. Just behind the performers, a black cloth covered a massive arrangement of objects. The cloth, which stretched from one end of the stage to the other, seemed to conceal an altar to an Egyptian god rather than musical equipment. When the opening sets came to a close, a gauzy white curtain fell across the front of the stage, hiding the preparations for the main attraction and rousing the crowd’s anticipation.

When it was finally time for The xx to play, the stage, still partially obscured by the diaphanous sheet, was slowly lit, barely revealing the figures of the band members as they took their places. The packed crowd screamed for the band’s trademark echoing guitar that introduces “Angels”—the opening track and first single from their new album. Undulating iridescent colors appeared, projected onto the screen to match the cover artwork of Coexist. As the drum percussion collapsed into the bridge of the song, the ghostly white curtain dropped dramatically, revealing Croft and company.

As they transitioned into “Heart Skips A Beat,” Croft and Sim swayed rhythmically as they played their instruments face-to-face. Sim’s plunking bass guitar matched his deep croon and complimented Croft’s soft vocals and ringing guitar. From behind a glassy podium bearing two large X’s, Smith bobbed his head and supplied the beats, backing tracks with the scores of diverse instruments that had previously been hidden under the sprawling black cloth.

Once the band had completed “Fiction,” the instantly recognizable bass guitar intro of “Crystalised” filled the theater. This time, however, something was distinctly different. The bumping bass riff faded out and a keyboard that stripped the song down to harmonic chords picked up the tune instead. Smith’s keyboard backed Croft’s vocals and the two of them played at half speed. It was a wonderfully surprising rendition of the song. They sang along to the wistful lyrics that plead, “go slow,” at the song’s end.

The band also put a new spin on their subsequent performance of “Fantasy,” and the intro to “Basic Space” was stripped down to vocals alone, while “Shelter” received a beat-heavy dance treatment. The group sailed through many of their tracks from Coexist, including “Chained” and “Reunion.” The latter used steel drums in a surprisingly poignant way.

The xx ended their set with a performance of the plaintive, “Infinity,” a song about the sorrow and longing for a past relationship. As Sim and Croft alternately called out “Give it up/I can’t give it up” and the song reached its dramatic climax, a white curtain on the back wall of the stage lifted slowly, revealing a massive, vitreous X which eventually filled with smoke and shone with white light.

The audience couldn’t give it up, either, after the monstrous finish. The band returned for an encore to thunderous applause. Beginning with “Intro,” they shifted into “Tides,” and finally the very fitting “Stars” as the X behind them projected an image of stars in the night sky flying by. As Croft and Sim held hands and gave a final bow, the audience gave a huge ovation of screams, claps, and whistles. Even after the band had left, the X continued to glow brightly, evocative of the band’s incandescent performance, and left the audience longing for more.