A unique event
The xx - Live At Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

For a band that embodies the word “understatement”, The xx sure know how to put on a show. Albeit in a nonchalant, understated way. The stage is a dimly-lighted aquarium peopled by three silhouettes, partially obscured behind an opaque curtain. The sparse, echoing guitar line of ‘Angels’ cuts through the chatter and silences the crowd as all eyes focus on the shadowy figure with the trademark, breathy voice. Beats like muffled bombs drop into the audio-visual landscape, accompanied by rapidly-flickering white lights, and the curtain falls in a sudden shimmering wave. It’s one hell of an entrance.

There’s been much talk of how, with second album, ‘Coexist’, The xx have stripped their pioneering, skeletal sound back even further. This makes for an album where silence is an additional instrument, and the brilliance of the beats has to be listened carefully for. Live, however, Jamie xx’s post-dubstep machinations are like a third voice, intertwining with that of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, at times even gaining ascendance. While the album suggested a subtle development in sound, the live performance highlights the creativity and innovation taking place beneath the surface.

All of which combines to create some extraordinary sounds. On ‘Missing’, Madley Croft and Sim sing not to each other but into the darkness, curiously isolated from one another. Meanwhile, thunderous pockets of bass erupt from the back of the stage, rolling out across the audience and grounding in calves and, oddly, shoulders. No other moment best conveys the themes of longing and loss which characterise the album, and it’s shiver-inducing. ‘Fiction’ reinforces ‘Coexist’ as a collection of unrequited – or thwarted – love songs, most poignantly in the line “I wake up alone, with only daylight between us.”

‘Crystallised’ is next, but it’s been given the ‘Coexist’ treatment. Still recognisable by its distinctive, haunting melody, its steady rhythm is shattered, fragmented and scattered. A rain of glitter from the ceiling marks the point at which the programmed drums and percussion take centre stage - several songs segue into one another, linked together by what is at times an almost dubstep club track. But just as you expect something huge to drop, silence, or just a single thudding bass note, halts everything in its tracks.

By the end of the set – a finale marked by a simple white, shining X hanging in the air - there’s the feeling of having witnessed a unique event, spectacle or display. While the latest album has sparked some debate over where such a fully-formed band might go next, the live performance clearly illustrates the vast spaces The xx might yet travel.

Words by Theresa Heath
Photo by Richard Gray

Click here for a photo gallery of the gig.

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