Live Review – The Xx

The Xx caused something of a stir last year. Coming from nowhere (ok, Putney), they quickly became media darlings and their debut album nestled near the top of almost everyone’s best-of lists. But all’s not been rosy with the band; following the departure of keyboardist Baria Qureshi from exhaustion, they then went to cancel shows in Europe due to illness. But they’ve sold out two consecutive nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and the place was buzzing in anticipation. Would they live up to the hype?

Speaking of hype, let’s talk first about These New Puritans. My mother always told me that if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

After their set, the roadies came on and did their stuff. And then pulled a huge white sheet down over the front of the stage. As the lights dimmed, the reason became clear. Unseen, the band launched into “Intro”, and suddenly lights at the back of the stage lit the band’s shadows onto the sheet, in time with the music. One second, the drummer, the next, Romy Madley Croft on guitar, then Oliver Sim. The shadows overlapped one another, grew and shrunk, to hugely hypnotic effect. At the climax of the song, the sheet fell to the ground. I’ve not heard such a rapturous response to a band’s entrance for years.

This care and attention is at the heart of The Xx. Putting up a white sheet and playing behind it is easy. Anyone could do it, but no-one else does. And like the sheet trick, their music seems simple – just drums, bass, guitar, a little keyboard, two singers. It’s just R’n’B mixed with New Order and The Cure with some drowsy singing on top, isn’t it? But it’s not. The simple lines intertwine to become so much more than the sum of their parts that it’s nearly beyond belief.

Chatting to a mate on the way home from work before the gig, he wondered aloud what The Xx would be like live. “Quiet, I expect”, he said. That’s what I thought. But Jamie Smith seems quite willing and able to use his Sarf Lahndahn upbringing to infuse his backing drums and keyboards with a heavy dubstep sound This is a sound impossible to miss in London, even in nicer parts of the city like Putney1. You can’t even listen to Radio 42 without some pirate station bursting over the top whilst you’re trying to concentrate on In Our Time. And they were surprisingly loud; ok, not quite Mastodon or The Twilight Sad loud, but enough to make my trousers shake. Trouser-shaking is good.

Their set did, somewhat predictably, consisted of everything from “Xx” plus “Teardrops”, but we weren’t complaining. “Crystalised”, coming early on, displayed everything that’s good about The Xx; their twin voices meshing together, the bassline and the guitar dancing around one another, and with the drum machine being played live, a sense that these weren’t just pre-programmed beats and an exercise in going through the motions.

Moody Oranges

“Heart Skipped A Beat” was memorably brilliant and sent me back to my iPhone to listen afresh in the morning (always a sign of a good live band, that). “Teardrops” was introduced with “We played this last night for the first time in ages, so sorry if it goes wrong”. It didn’t, with the two-step reinvention showing lesser bands how to do this cover version lark properly (looking in your direction, Florence and the Overhyped Machine). “Basic Space”, my personal favourite, almost got me tearducts going. Almost, but not quite – what kind of a wuss do you take me for?

It was an evening of stepping into someone else’s world. A nighttime, teenage world, of doubts and heartbreak and lust and that wooziness of not knowing or understanding what was happening in your outer and inner life. You can just tell how this music was created by close friends, growing up together, creating a feeling of seeing into their little gang, eavesdropping on those nights in one or another’s bedroom, painstakingly crafting these little nuggets of beauty with the magpie instinct natural to a generation growing up with all the music in the world just a click away.

They really know what they are doing, this lot. In some ways, they remind me of The White Stripes, with their singleminded purity of sound and image. I wonder where they will go next; maybe they’ll be like Tindersticks and make a second album that’s just like the first one, only more so. If they can harness their enviable talents and push on to make another great record, we could be talking about them in hushed tones in years to come. Their sound has already developed from last year, with a much heavier backline, and stronger singing voices, so I look forward to whatever they come out with next.

Catch them on tour in the UK and at SXSW in the US later this month. Do it now, before they either become huge, or disappear.

1 Yes, I know they went to the Elliott School, bang in the middle of a large council estate, but it’s hardly Brixton or Tower Hamlets, is it?

2 The BBC radio station, rather than the band, obviously.

MP3: Crystalised by The Xx (Keljet Remix)

MP3: Teardrops by The Xx

Buy “XX” (CD/MP3)