Showbox at the Market
The lights slowly dropped and the atmosphere inside of the packed house at the Showbox at the Market became increasingly more hazy and confusing. Even the red recessed lighting at the top of the pillars had gone out around the room. The only lights left were the small lamps above the bars and backlighting for all of the bottles of booze, and one singular white beam projecting from the floor at the back of the stage. All that was visible were the outlines of instruments and a two-letter symbol emblazoned on two transparent podiums that held more musical equipment: X X.
Smoke began to pour out from machines on either side of the stage, bathing the front half of the audience in a swathe of bleary anticipation. I stood patiently up front, waiting for this moment to reach its peak, as a literal fog of mystery and growing anxiety settled over the crowd; standing out there, packed from wall to wall like bats in a cave before dusk, waiting excitably in the dark. When the band emerged onto the stage and struck the first chords, filtered light began to pour out from behind the three musicians. Still shrouded in a grey haze, bright streaks of white light shot forth around their figures to greet the cheers and hollers from the crowd.
The first time that I saw The xx, at Sasquatch back in 2010, they were the new hot shit, the new hipster favorite, and the buzz surrounding their impending performance was huge. They stood nervously on stage, barely moving, almost as stark and lonely as their sound. Now, two years later, they seem to have grown as musicians and performers. Their music is still very controlled and contrived down to every press of a key, beat of a snare, pluck of a string, and each faintly audible breath into the microphone…. But their presence is stronger. An air of confidence in their artistry is evident from the moment that they appear onstage.
Now, July 25th 2012, they stood before me once again at a show that is beyond sold out and the buzz hasn’t died down one bit. My first thought was, “Dang, these young Brits can play!” They know their instruments, they know what their capabilities and range are, and they have excellent control over their medium. They opened with the brand new single “Angels.” Having listened to it on repeat for the last two days, I recognized it immediately. It started off hushed and minimal with a singular guitar and soft vocals, blossoming after the first chorus line with the additions of bass and advancing drum beat. They played quite a few new tracks, mixed in nicely with their more familiar work from their debut album. The new songs sounded distinctly like The xx, yet were immediately distinguishable and stood out, and not simply because the audience didn’t know the lyrics. There is a slightly more upbeat quality to some of their new tracks, but with a consistently heavier drum beat, grounding the music in eerie darkness and tinged with sorrow. The new material expands on that sort of hopeless love and subdued desire that is synonymous with the The xx, and leaves the listener transcending to a place of emotive response. In other words, it makes you want to dance! After “Angels,” they pulled the crowd in with some familiarity and played the well-known “Islands” and “Heart Skipped a Beat.” At this point, the audience was practically jumping out of their skin with excitement, an evolution which continued on throughout the evening, with the pulse of movement throughout the crowd not slowing until after the final song had ended.
What to say about the audience? The crowd, the mystifyingly suburban crowd- where did all the hipsters go? Walking in, I expected a total hipster shit show: a sea of high-waisted cutoff shorts and perfectly 90’s hairdos, with a signature too-cool-to-look-you-in-the-eye attitude. However, the majority of people around me appeared to be middle-class professionals and 19 year olds from the suburbs, riding the train of a trend. I heard much talk of Neon Trees and other trendy names in music that I didn’t fully recognize but had heard of once or twice. It was weird and most people were just a part of a typical crowd- nothing to be surprised by. However, I was continually mystified by the lack of a “scene” aside from expensive handbags bouncing around on daddy’s money, all stoned and oblivious with the stupidity of youth. Most of these kids weren’t actually listening to the music or watching the visuals around them, they seemed to be there merely because someone, or some blog or the radio, told them that it was cool. But I suppose that’s a scene unto itself. I actually had to move a few times due to some erratic clapping that was totally off-beat and messing with my own sense of rhythm. I am not typically one to be so sensitive about these things, especially in a large crowd, but I think that the subtle nature of the music made these errant noises from the people around me much more distracting.
Early on, when I had just secured a great spot 2 rows back in front of guitarist/vocalist, Romy Madley Croft, a middle-aged male couple began swaying a little too vigorously for the space that they were in. The man behind bumped his partner into about 5 different individuals around them and, instead of stopping when everyone turned to glare at them in annoyance, the partner who was pushed simply shrugged, smiled and then proceeded to raise his hands and clap along to absolutely no beat at all. Meanwhile, his partner was still swaying and pushing him into everyone at their front and side. I’m glad that they had such care-free attitudes, but the force of their swaying was almost hip-crushing! I can’t stand that kind of obliviousness to those around you in close quarters. This was during the beginning of “Crystalized,” when it is super quiet and everyone else in the audience was silently hanging on every breath uttered by the group onstage. That was the first time that I re-located a bit further back and more toward center stage; all subsequent moves being for less memorable, typical group mentality crap.
This show however, was not overtly advertised was a digital sale only, without paper tickets. The xx is touring North America as a precursor to their new album, Coexist, dropping on September 11th, so these smaller club shows are meant to be intimate experiences for their closest fans and critics. Therefore, in my opinion, every last person in attendance should have had their focus locked in with this performance, as it may be the last chance to see this maturing band on their way up! After a short stint at European festivals and the album is released, they will resume touring North America, with their next stop in Seattle taking place at the substantially larger Paramount Theatre in October. So this literally may have been the last chance to get within spitting distance of The xx for a long time. The planning for this circuit was crafty too, as re-selling or scalping was presumably impossible with the exclusion of physical paper copies. Smart cookies.
The lights and visual aspect of the performance followed a progression of musical flow. They began with a dim, misty grey, slowly turning to a soft purple, which increased with the musical energy, inducing a physical response from both the band and audience. As the music became more animated, I started to notice an emotive response from the band. The crowd responded back by dancing and swaying as the lights evolved to teal blue and alternating greens, eventually mixing with the purple. The creative chemistry between Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim became very visible and it was fun to see. They truly were enjoying the chance to share their new songs. The livelier the music got, the more animated they became, reacting to each others’ movements and really becoming a part of the performance. I could feel the newness of this music, could sense their connection to their craft, and was drawn to the raw artistic power of it, even in its controlled subtlety. As the set went on, light and color began to appear on the screen behind the stage, which had remained black for the first half of the show. By the last two songs, there was a gradient ripple of movement in the colors emanating from the stage lights–an early progression of strobes, which finally broke out toward the very end of the last song.
When the trio returned for an encore, there were actual patterns in the screen that created a sense of the whole room moving and vibrating with the music. All three band members; Croft, Sim, and percussionist/producer Jamie Smith, were in full performance mode upon return–jumping, moving, and dancing more energetic than ever before! For the first encore song, the strobes that heralded their explosive return calmed a little and there was an oceanic view of rippling water behind a new song which sounded very aquatic and fluid. For the second song, and final offering of the night, there were images of stars and celestial bodies fluctuating in illumination and size, tentatively illuminating the band themselves, who, among the pulsing lights and bouncing bodies, became the only solid figures in the room.
The progression of color and light was really a symbol of the progression of a band; a group of musicians who have matured significantly from one album to the next. While they played each song with skill and grace, the new material belied something very current, very honest. Their physical movements during these new cuts demonstrated this, while the lights flashing about simply gave it away. Anyone paying attention could sense that the feeling between the band members during their new songs possessed an intense kinetic energy, creating an involuntary response with physical, visceral movements. Having gone to art school myself, I can see how these musicians’ creative scope was informed by artistic training. Some of their sounds fall into the category of noise-art, but are carefully merged together to create longer, beautiful pieces. Much of their work is conceptual music, including the placement of vocals and their presentation, all pieced together to create the larger whole. Everything is meticulously planned and well thought out, and The xx manage it wonderfully. They’ve created sounds of the finest order in high-art, and they’ve convinced a wide spectrum of followers to hang on their every word–or every slight breath, as it may fall. I walked away from the Showbox that night with a deep respect for the attention to detail and care that The xx puts into their music, and a greater respect in their ability to pull it off with talent, beauty and a sense of romantic doom. Just the gloomy type of hope that is my favorite flavor of bittersweet.