Easter had come and gone, quickly – but not impolitely – like a friendly and efficient tradesman. We’d climbed into a car and hurled out of Perth, rolling up and down the countryside. Northam, where pints still cost a purple note; Lake Leschenaultia, where bright-coloured waterbirds glide on a still and misty bay; Donnybrook, where they may or may not have been a UFO sighting among the apple orchards; Busselton, where Hollywood celluloid still lurches and flickers on the drive-in screen hemmed by eucalyptus. I’m lying in an unkempt south-west backyard, watching moths and parachuters sail through a sky of resolute blue, when I miss a bunch of calls. Eventually I haul myself up, head inside and fetch my phone. It’s ringing. A familiar voice tells me I’m set to attend The xx show in Perth tonight. A swell concert is about the only thing that can tempt me back to the city tonight, so that’s lucky. We throw bags in the car and shrink into the highway.
I call a friend who might like to go. Clifford is an xx fan.
“Big dog,” he answers.
I ask him if he wants to go. He does. We agree to meet in a spot we never otherwise would; the stairs out front of Metro City.
It’s long dark by the time I meet Clifford. We scale the stairs and enter the huge shadowy room, its substantial stage dwarfed somewhat by tier upon tier of balconies packed with eager bodies. It’s nigh-on impossible to find a good vantage point. We settle for a perforation in the herd near the stage’s front-left. THE XX have now begun, splashing us with the rich and moody sounds of tunes like “Islands,” “Chained” and “Reunion.” Clifford and I nod in mutual, measured appreciation: it sounds good so far.
Everything is looking suitably saturnine. As usual, all band members are clad in black, swaying gently or else frozen to the spot until the set’s more vigorous moments. Stark white lights flash occasionally, synchronizing with dramatic bass drum booms or erupting riffs. Singers (and guitarst/bassist respectively) Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim appear staunchly austere at the stage’s port and starboard. More visibly active, and ostensibly having more fun, is beat-man Jamie Smith (aka Jamie XX), who scurries from decks MPCs to synths and physical steel drums, cymbals and snares, playing all (particularly the MPC) with jaw-dropping deftness. Soon enough they actually cover one of Jamie XX’s solo tunes – “Far Nearer” – piquing my curiosity further about the intersection of those two distinct projects. The audience’s behaviour seems to mirror the band’s: quiet, withdrawn austerity with frequent hints of glee. Which is weird to see in the frequently testosterone-flooded Metro City – but not at all concerning.
The xx are not a band whose music I’ve ever spent much time with, for whatever reason. I’ve listened to it, but always at arm’s length, whereas many folk need no persuasion to grab it like a blanket and wrap themselves up. I’m not sure what it is that keeps them feeling distant to me; perhaps it’s the cold, unfaltering solemnity – but then, yknow, I like Joy Division and a whole bunch of similarly unsmiling bands – so maybe it’s the slickness – the lack of an expected human, imperfect element from a young rock band. Who knows. For whatever that reason is, though, my favourite moments tonight are when The xx break their own mold a little; mixing their songs up with fresh and ebullient flourishes, exchanging otherwise unremarkable glances that here feel like breaking-the-fourth-wall; and when Jamie makes a blunder on the synth, playing a patently wrong chord, Romy grins in the darkness, and I feel a little cheerier and relaxed about the whole thing.
Because as Clifford mentions to me, this is a band comprising friends from high school. While they’re entitled to graduate from that status (and they have certainly transcended it, generally speaking), one hopes they’d retain some of the bright-eyed, intimate vibes that suffused their early work. Tonight feels a lot like a stadium rock concert in a lot of ways, and as such, its simpler, more earnest moments are particularly refreshing. Mind you, I’m also enjoying tonight’s deviations into more overtly electronic territory; their second album Coexist was more consciously influenced by “club music” (by the band’s admission), and there’s no doubt that tack has entered the live show philosophy. The tune “Shelter” – which I always thought of as a kind of floating, aching track – gets a makeover as a sort of house-infused banger. Clifford is not so keen on such reworkings, and it’s understandable: like so many “remixes” of thoughtful pop songs, the emphasis on danceability sacrifices a fair slice of the song’s original mood and vision. Still, I think it sounds pretty swell, and retains its essence – but I’m a less hardcore fan, innit. More enjoyable for most, I’ll contend, is when the marriage is more subtle: still pared-back, crystalline pop tunes (which rested on an electronic foundation from the outset, anyway) being given gentle, tasteful production tweaks by old mate Jamie up the back. When the balance is at its best, it’s damn good.
The three vanish momentarily; some roadies tune their guitars, the crowd swells to a brief roar, and they return for a two-song encore: “Intro” and “Angels,” the latter providing a pensive closer with its spacious, simple, lilting refrain: “Being as in love / with you / as I am.” It concludes a set that’s occasionally sparse, occasionally intense and usually achieving a plateau of gothic-indie-post-dubstep-whateverness that lays out its own aesthetic without ever making you feel TOO much. Maybe those more extreme highs and lows are something The xx will soon explore. Or maybe that’s just not their bag. In any case, tonight’s performance hasn’t transformed The xx into my new favourite band; and even Clifford, a fan, isn’t flabbergasted. But it has given me a new appreciation for the synthesis of electronic music and indie-guitar music; the blend here is seamless, even if its appeal ebbs and flows depending on the approach. Unlike plenty of bands who pitt beats and acoustic instruments against each other to create layerings of decidedly distinct sounds, The xx somehow manage to cross-breed the two until it all sounds incredibly singular. Gone are any “indietronic” or “electro-rock” tags: this just sounds like music. If this still young, still developing (albeit remarkably accomplished) band can grow that singularity into a few more albums with a few more twists and turns, we’re bound to have something especially special on our hands.