Is it redundant to say the best part of a show was the lights? Is that like saying the best part of going to the beach is sitting in the sand? The best part of a musical was the singing? Getting a spectacle when you go to see a big band at a big venue is part of what you pay for. But last night at Terminal 5, it may be fair to say that watching (new FADER cover stars) The xx perform was better than listening to them. Not to say they sounded bad—they didn’t—but it’s difficult to compete with the equivalent of a rock band aurora borealis. At points, they looked like they were stepping out of a huge prism, beaming up into some spaceship in the sky. For one song, the stage turned eerily blue, like they were drowning. Towards the end, when the bass and giant drums came in, they shot off white light so bright I had to close my eyes. This is an accomplishment.
Before the show began, a woman behind me was talking about seeing another big band play a big show: Beach House’s sold out Central Park gig 10 days ago. It rained for much of that show and she was extolling the night’s romance. Her friend agreed but allowed a caveat for the home team, saying that Beach House is “the most romantic music possible or whatever. Besides The xx.” I wonder if he would have rescinded his statement after the concert. Like minded to the romance seekers, the first time bassist and singer Oliver Sim touched the microphone, the crowd cheered in anticipation of the sexiness to come. But with the exception of the last song performed, “Stars,” a woozy ode to love at first sight (and the loving sex that comes with it), most of the show was less about passion and more about steely carnality. The big question for The xx has been: how will they progress? They’ve said the sparse aesthetics of their debut album were arrived at mostly by accident and necessity—a byproduct of their lack of musical skill and young voices, an affinity for practicing via the dull audio of Skype. But three years after that album and the million shows and infinite accolades that came with it, it’s hard to play possum. So they didn’t. But while their stage show is tremendous and surely their confidence and chops are much improved, their physicality is not dissimilar. This provides a bit of a puzzle. Their demureness is part of the appeal, but that quietude makes it difficult for them to hold the attention of the audience at such an enormous venue. When they performed songs from their debut, as they spent most of the show doing, they were leaders in a singalong and actors in a set piece for smart phone snapshots. The latter is not atypical of any performance in 2012, sure, but the incessant photographing made them into a special event as much as a band. Smartly, they know this and they have the light show to justify it. Still, it would have been better at a warmer venue. The best moments were the largest and loudest ones, which is not often true for them on record. The tiny complexities of The xx were not tailor made for a place with multiple balconies, and most people talked through the new songs.
Still, this is one of the most innovative, beloved bands in the world, and watching them play anywhere is a pleasure. Their new songs are often swifter and meatier than their old, with more left turns and screwball percussion. For much of their debut, Romy Madley-Croft’s pale guitar was the heart of a song. Now when she drifts in it’s a relief. “Tides,” where she serves up little bits of casual slink, sounded particularly compelling delivering its almost funky bassline. The best thing they played, though, wasn’t really their song. Early last year, Smith, as Jamie xx, released a reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s album, I’m New Here, which ended with a beautiful piano run and a trickle of Madley-Croft’s guitar. Smith later reworked the song into a beat for Drake, which he used as “Take Care,” the title song of his sophomore album and an enormous hit with Rihanna on the hook. Last night, for a moment, they broke into that instrumental. The drum machine kicked in and sounded clean and enormous playing the one instrumental born and bred for a tremendous space. Stepping into eerie green light, Madley-Croft slanted backwards and eked out her riff like a true shredder. Though they were essentially playing warped house music, it was the most rock and roll moment of the night.