Posted by: Jeff | April 6, 2010

Live Review: The xx

Anybody who has been to the historic synagogue at 6th and I Streets NW in downtown Washington, DC, knows that with the right artist, the experience can be magical.  And with the wrong artist, the evening can be a bit weird.  Last Sunday at the later of two shows, the audience experienced both.

The acoustics in the synagogue are extraordinary, lending an air of reverberation to the music that makes it feel as if it swirls around the listener rather than simply emanate from the stage.  Though the audience is largely stuck in cumbersome pews that prohibit much movement, the atmospheric effect of the acoustics lends the experience an intimate touch.  Personal connection with the artist is heightened, and emotion and richness in music is conveyed more clearly than melody or the impulse to dance.

When the lights first dimmed, turntable artist Nosaj Thing came on stage to manually tweak presets and dials to create a vibrant instrumental funk that caused heads to bob but no feet to move.  Case in point where the pews become cumbersome.  The performance, though short, was both interesting and fun, but left the audience conflicted about leaving hard-earned real estate in the pews to dance in the aisles.  In the end, the audience sat.

I have to admit that my excitement for the second opener, jj, was nearly as high as for the headliner.  jj has released three albums in the short span of a year, and the second, the aptly named jj no 2, is a phenomenal blend of unique sound fusions that encompass African percussion, sugar-sweet synths, and fuzzy hip-hop fugues (especially on “Ecstasy”, a riff on Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop”).

Live, however, was a completely different story.  jj was an enigma wrapped in a riddle and shrouded by mystery until recently, when the duo of Joakim Benon and Elin Kastlander came public and announced a record deal and a tour in support of fellow letterphiles, The xx.  Given that not much was known about them, jj’s tour was hotly anticipated, so it was with a large degree of disappointment that I read very unfavorable reviews of their first stateside appearance at SXSW.

And I have to admit, those unfavorable reviews were pretty kind.  jj’s performance started fine, with Kastlander alone on stage gently playing acoustic guitar and delivering magnificent vocals on a soft ballad.  Then, things got weird.  Wearing what appeared to be three Snuggies, Kastlander ditched the guitar for a cd of pre-recorded instrumentals, stood alone at a microphone with a bottle of water, and proceeded to look as disinterested as possible while performing tracks from their two most recent albums.  Benon made two appearances on stage, and both were merely to give Kastlander an awkwardly-long hug in between tracks.  Then he would exit.  When he came on stage a third time, he picked up a guitar to great applause.  Finally, a real instrument!  And then he plucked about three notes and the performance was over.

It was truly bizarre – given the venue, it was horribly unfortunate that jj’s performance felt like a mediocre talent singing over pre-recorded music in a church service.  Or, come to think of it, a high school talent show.  It was a huge let down.

Thank goodness, then, for The xx.  From the moment they arrived on stage, clad all in black and looking grim, these kids had the audience in the palm of their hands.  The first notes of the song “Intro”, made famous by Visa and Apolo Anton Ohno during the Winter Olympics, you knew this would be a great show.

The xx specialize in moody minimalism, with a focus on intentional placement of sparse guitar and brooding bass overlaid by frenetic drum machine work.  The breathy vocals of guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim issue back and forth in tandem, and the relationship between the two vocalists sounds more tense and passionate live than on record.  The intimate conversation implicit on tracks like “Crystalised” and “Infinity” were a glimpse into angsty bedside conversation.  Whether real or performed, I don’t know.  And that personal element really elevated the performance.  For example, on “Crystalised”:

[Sim:] You’ve applied the pressure
To have me crystalised
And you’ve got the faith
That I could bring paradise

[Croft:] I’ll forgive and forget
Before I’m paralyzed
Do I have to keep up the pace
To keep you satisfied

It’s hard to believe that Croft and Sims are so young – only 20! – as the tone and intensity of their music and performance is so mature.  Their performance on Sunday fused the best elements of concert and theater performance to keep the audience at rapt attention throughout.  As they returned to stage for an encore, the stage lights faded and the black canvas behind the band blinked on with hundreds of points of light.  A perfect backdrop for the track “Stars”, and a great end to a show in which the best moments were the quiet intimate ones.

Photo: Brightest Young Things



  1. […] the best live shows to pass through DC.  The xx have been through DC once already this year, and blew me away with their intimate minimal sound.  They were back last week with fellow high school alums Hot […]

  2. […] Heart/Surfer Blood 9. Florence + The Machine 8. Miike Snow 7. The New Pornographers 6. Beach House 5. The xx 4. Spoon 3. Thievery Corporation 2. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club 1. The […]

  3. Awesome review! Thank you for directing me to it. Sounds like it was a fantastic show and exactly what I was hoping for but didn’t get the other night.

  4. […] “I have to admit, those unfavorable reviews were pretty kind. […] stood alone at a microphone with …“ […]

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