I’m a firm believer that every music lover should develop a bucket list of shows they absolutely must see before they disappear into the ether. Live music has a way of elevating and refreshing an artist’s source material, uniting people through intimate emotions expressed in song. It’s pretty freaking magical.
Unfortunately, my list is largely filled with improbabilities. For example, I’m still holding out for another Gorillaz album and tour. I also have this fantasy that Nirvana will reunite (not with Paul McCartney, but a hologram Kurt Cobain). Pipe dreams, I know. So when I had the chance to make a dent in my ever-expanding wish list, I jumped at the opportunity.
The xx, a collection of three British indie pop wunderkinds whose debut album forever redefined my perception of what music can and should be, were scheduled to stop in Philadelphia last October in support of their “Coexist” tour. However, at the last minute, their booking got replaced with Hurricane Sandy, and the band had to reschedule. Not to make light of a devastating natural disaster, but I was ready to brave the elements for what was sure to be a radical performance. It would have been an intimate show, that’s for sure.
Three months down the line, I stood outside the Electric Factory Jan. 27 with 60 or so early-bird xx enthusiasts as we waited for the sadistic security guards to open the doors (they said it would happen at 7, but it was really more like 7:30) so we could finally see the performance we had been waiting ages for. I had to keep moving to prevent my toes from freezing together in the Arctic conditions, but I knew it would be worth it once I was within spitting distance of The xx’s lead singer, Romy Madley Croft, and the beau of my dreams, Oliver Sim.
After a very thorough pat-down by security, I was inside and made a beeline for the barrier in front of the stage. I had the perfect vantage point to stage left and was eager to get on with the show. If only we could have bypassed the opener Austra’s set. It was a slew of cacophonous, operatic electronic tracks belted by a lead singer who looked like a knock-off Ellie Goulding in a frilly maid’s uniform. Not my jam.
Once that was over, the stage was blanketed by a massive, fairly sheer white sheet, and the stage crew began to set up instruments and props for The xx. Two white square boxes, each with a large, clear “x” on them, were placed at center stage, and microphones were set for Croft and Sim, one of whom would be singing directly in front of me. But who?
Eventually the packed venue went dark and the whole crowd cheered. Suddenly, a shot of oil dispersing in water was projected on the sheet, an homage to the band’s “Coexist” cover. Then a spotlight appeared on Croft’s face, and she and Sim began to pluck the first notes of “Angels” to even more overwhelming enthusiasm. Croft sang as the silkscreen veiled her from her fans, her voice rich yet tender, something that didn’t entirely come across just from listening to the band’s two albums. Each note, each beat, each lyric was so clear and potent. It was the perfect first song.
The group wasted no time between tracks as they kicked into “Heart Skipped a Beat” with Jaime Smith behind the “x” boxes, mixing beats and managing the transitions. As the first drumbeats kicked in, the curtain dropped dramatically, bright lights flashed in sync with the song, and Sims confidently approached his mic, which was located directly in front of me. He began to sing as he played his bass, his velvet voice breathing poetry into our ears. Croft soon joined in, and I remembered how simple and ingenious the pairing of their two voices was.
There’s a wistful yearning in the band’s lyrics, which Croft and Sim acted out by performing a sort of conflicted dance during some of their songs as they played their instruments. Or occasionally they’d be posted behind their mic stands and would make brief eye contact during songs, demonstrating the vocal and emotional distance their music is known for. The poetry was in these small actions — a punch of light here, a longing glance there. These little things said more than any detailed choreography or high-tech pyromania could ever hope to say.
During the middle of the set, the band consecutively played some of my favorite songs. “Islands” kicked off the streak, as flashes of blue light popped with every other note Croft played. The crowd danced, and Smith did his thing behind his array of instruments while sipping on a beer. From here, the threesome took a softer turn with “VCR” as Sim stared directly at me when he sang, “I want to find myself by the sea in another’s company.”
“Name the time and place,” I thought. He grinned, I’m sure of it.
Then there was a remixed version of “Chained,” which Croft admitted hadn’t worked out when the band tried it in New York, but they were going to give it a go anyway. The fans didn’t seem to mind the trancey rendition, and one even yelled “You nailed it!” after all was said and done.
A three-song encore rounded out the night, beginning with the instrumental song “Intro,” which Sim and Croft poured their hearts into. Fans begging for a second encore were left disappointed, but I didn’t see a sour face in the whole venue as the masses poured out of the Electric Factory.
I left the concert by passing the band’s tour buses, hoping to avoid the migrating hipsters who’d likely be fighting me for a seat on the subway. I passed a telephone pole with posters advertising the show and couldn’t help but rip one off. I knew I’d want to remember this night for years to come.