The xx – Stylus, Leeds – 8 March 2010

Ten great gigs from 2010: #3 (based on an article written for The Yorker).

Album cover: xx

“This isn’t the same as the Cockpit.” Oliver Sim’s mid-set declaration elicited enough laughter from the crowd that it would have been easy to ignore its pertinence; just last April, The (unknown) xx supported The (overblown) Big Pink at Leeds’ favourite sub-railway-bridge club.

In the intervening year, the loss of one member (keyboardist Baria Qureshi) to exhaustion was countered by the development of a following sizable enough to sell out Leeds University’s three-tiered, 1000-capacity club venue months before the gig. And of course, months after the gig, their murmured debut album’s success in a bunch of Year End lists was added to by an unusually predictable Mercury Prize.

Taking to the stage after dynamic sets by the rhythmic, menacing These New Puritans and the yelping, peculiarly attired Glasser, their performance was all the more arresting for their comparative stillness on stage. Their debut might seem to have been written for dark, post-night out hours, but their show was far from soporific. In the event, the elevated significance of every minuscule motion on stage made for a striking set.

The xx (including the departed Baria Qureshi) at La Casa, Milan. Photo by Stefano Masselli.

Impressively for a performance in a normally-pounding club venue, The xx’s sparse arrangements meant that each of its parts sounded pristine. Whilst Sim and co-lead singer Romy Madley Croft’s half-whispered vocals were quietly soulful throughout, the subtle guitar effects accompanying them coexisted with a delicacy rarely found in the live arena (or even on many bands’ studio recordings).

Running through every track from xx, the visual show matched and acted as a perfect foil for their aural aesthetic: it was simple and understated, but balanced. Drummer Jamie Smith’s place at the back-centre of the stage behind two illuminated white Xs completed the trio’s symmetrical triangular formation on stage, whilst a large dark X, backlit with red light and angular white beams, towered behind him.

On top of that, the result of their live sound engineering was perfect for the occasion – the system’s emphasis on the bass element of their sound made for a stunning ambient guitar on ‘Fantasy’. It also brought some intensity out of Smith’s synthetic drums, which gave the set momentum when they come to the fore on the likes of singles ‘Crystalised’ and ‘Islands’.

The xx might easily be thought of as the sort of band to be overwhelmed by a live setting. Here, though, the meticulousness of every aspect of their show made for an undoubtedly memorable performance.

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