Starting your sold-out, “homecoming” gig with one of the most skeletal and sparse tracks you have in your arsenal seems like a damp way to kick off what should be an electrifying experience. Then again, if you think about it, The xx’s moody suspense and scowling disinterest have made them unlikely candidates for breakout success. Yet they’ve become adored by awkwardly skulking in shadows trying to shrug off their own achievements. An intriguing success story they might be at this point, but drama isn’t usually one of their strong suits.
Over the years Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith have picked up a few tricks. An opaque sheet dangles over the stage projecting strange images as the first sad-eyed bars of ‘Angels’ ring out, followed by Madley Croft’s husky voice, breathing velveteen-like from the darkness behind. The curtain falls after that first verse, a moment that with any other band would be the signal for explosion. But instead, one of the many silences in 'Angels' engulfs the room, hanging heavy on the air. As band and audience face each other for the first time in the deepening quiet, unsure of what to do the crowd just go bonkers, but there’s no hiding the awkwardness. This is the sound of romance and painful honesty filling a vast space, something humans in general find uncomfortable - yet these shy, grumpy kids in the corner, have mastered it.
And there’s more up their sleeves. ‘Crystalised’ whispers in, unheralded by its usual bell-like riff, instrumentally stripped back, exposing bare the interaction between Sims and Madley Croft’s oddly flat voices. While in the moments Jamie xx takes centre-stage, the band’s most emotionally fraught tracks are transformed into full-on club bangers. ‘Chained’ becomes an almost nightmarish experience when in between Madley Croft’s cooing “We used to get closer than this, is it something you missed?” the bass rattles the very balconies and walls. Later people are actually dancing as ‘Swept Away’ and ‘Shelter’ are mashed together, the bass muddying their usual pealing guitar, while a deftly dropped-in xylophone sample from Artful Dodger’s ‘Movin' Too Fast’ earns Jamie one of the biggest cheers of the night.
Only a few hours ago the band posted online how much tonight’s sold-out show meant to them - Brixton Academy was the place they saw their first gigs; Oliver and Jamie saw The White Stripes and Romy saw The Distillers. And tonight this place is packed to the brim just for them with a crowd whose affection borders on reverence. Just having their undivided attention isn’t enough though. The xx aim for the hairs at the back of the neck as the outro of ‘Infinity’ marches towards an soaring apex; the pace quickens, the noise ascends, strobes collapsing into a retina-searing freak-out, Jamie’s beats crashing while another curtain slowly rises on the back wall revealing a huge white "X". Then the lights cut abruptly to darkness leaving that one single letter burnt onto our eyeballs and a crowd reeling with the spectacle of it all. Pah … and who says these guys can’t do drama?
Words by Dannii Leivers
Photos by Marc Sethi