Photograph by Howard Melnyczuk
I’m standing to the left of the stage at Brixton Academy, waiting for John Talabot, who’s opening for The XX, to play his set. A nymph-ish, ginger-haired girl brushes past me and starts campily posing in front of the anti-crowd surfing sign. She laughs as her friend snaps her picture with a smart phone. I think: she looks a lot like Florence Welch. I look at her again. Oh, I realize. It is Florence Welch. This is one of those gigs.
After a bit more posing, Florence giggles and thankfully scurries off, and more interestingly Talabot begins. The Barcelona-based DJ-producer whose debut album Fin has recently found its way onto several Best Albums of 2012 lists proceeds to play a captivating 40-minute set that showcases his ability to combine inarticulate chants with house-influenced pop hooks. Standouts like ‘Last Land’ and ‘Destiny’ illustrate Talabot’s mastery of the build-and-release approach to creating dance music.
Talbot finishes playing, and after a 30-minute wait The xx finally walk onto the stage. The show begins with the South London trio hidden behind a translucent white curtain. This is Jamie Smith (Flo’s friend and some-time producer), Romy Madley Croft, and Oliver Sim reminding us they’re mysterious. There’s an image of a galaxy reflected on the curtain. This is the xx reminding us they’re celestial. The curtain slowly begins to rise, revealing Romy and Oliver standing still in front of two microphones. The audience roars, reminding the xx that we want to hear them play.
The trio begins their set with ‘Angels’, the lead single off of their most recent album, Coexist. “And every day, I’m learning about you,” sings Romy, her voice piercing through the heart of the venue. But it is Oliver’s captivating swagger that monopolizes my attention throughout the first song, and, to be honest, for the duration of the show. Although at times he comes close to resembling an amateur actor playing Drunk, there’s a consistent and irresistible sensuality to his movements.
While Romy romances the crowd, and Oliver dips and swoons across the stage, Jamie remains set back from the audience, stood behind turntables and synthesizers. Two giant illuminated Xs acting as a barrier between him and his bandmates while he calmly weaves his particular brand of delicate dubstep; the body of The xx’s music.
Throughout the hour and a half long set they alternate songs from Coexist and their Mercury-award winning self-titled debut, an approach that only reveals the stark difference between the two LPs. If The xx introduced a talented band at its best, Coexist shows a band hungry to live up to the enigmatic musical personality cultivated by their debut. As the three piece continue it’s lyric-heavy songs like ‘VCR’ and ‘Reunion’ which seem like they can hold the audience’s attention the best. But the real standouts are songs like ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’ and ‘Islands’, which show how capable Oliver and Romy are of expanding their guitars – which come across as minimalist on record – so that the cavernous Academy is filled with layered chords.
On most of the songs that they play, like ‘Missing’ and ‘Night Time’, the band show how clearly their live show is about Romy and Oliver’s ability to seduce with their instruments and Jamie xx’s ability to seduce with production. On others like ‘Intro’ – a 2 minute masterpiece still omnipresent in everything produced by the BBC four years after its release – they demonstrate that the most artfully-placed vocals, however incomprehensible, can often be the most poetic. Although their recorded music is stripped back and minimalist, their live show attempts to elevate the epic qualities of their music.
After playing 16 songs, The xx takes a short break before returning to the stage to play three last songs as an encore. They end the night with ‘Stars.’ After the music finishes, Jamie walks out from behind his synthesizer fortress, flanked by his two bandmates. They stand at the front of the stage, telling the crowd thank you for the umpteenth time tonight. They remind us that they’re humble. Florence Welch, bopping around just behind me, her hands raised, stovepipe hat slightly askew, reminds us that not everyone could do what the xx have done. Not everyone in South London has had the success that they’ve had.