Can it really be eight years since The xx picked up the top prize at the Mercury Awards? Seems like only yesterday, and even though they’ve released two albums since then and are seasoned veterans of the music industry, I still find that I worry about them, just a little. Partly it’s because their photos often make them look sort of vulnerable, but mostly it’s because their music sounds so personal and revealing. They seem to put much more of themselves on the line than other bands.
Maybe I’m wrong, but as I head for my first ever live encounter with the band, at Nottingham on Saturday 4th March, I find that I’m just slightly nervous about how their sound will translate to a packed arena (and from the crowds making their way through the streets in the direction of the Arena, it was pretty clear that it will indeed by packed out).
It’s not the size of the venue, so much as the presence of all these other people. I would gladly sit at the back of the arena and just let the sound wash over me, that’s what The xx songs are for, but sharing these intimate moments with thousands of others seems a bit too public. I don’t even do selfies. And I listen to The xx when everybody else has gone out. They’re not for sharing.
It’s the band’s first U.K. gig in four years and they sound pleased to be back, endearing themselves to the locals by referencing one of their early gigs at The Bodega (pause for cheering).
Since the last time they were round these parts, Jamie Smith, a.k.a. Jamie xx, has arguably become the best known of the trio, following the success of his 2015 solo album In Colour, with its array of complex beats and samples and subtly shifting melodies, and his parallel career as a producer and DJ. Here he’s positioned on a riser at the back of the stage, more or less invisible to much of the crowd (and to camera persons in the pit), but when he’s due an extended solo, an ingenious mirrored ceiling tilts into position so that we can see him scurrying between drums, keyboards, timpani, decks and electronics. It’s a fascinating view and a little bit like one of those overhead shots of maze tests done on small animals, giving the show an air of scientific enquiry, which it rather suits.
Vital to the group dynamic Smith may be, but The xx still look and sound like a trio of friends and it’s still Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim who take most of the responsibility for delivery. They work so well together, both instrumentally and vocally, that they are capable of changing the mood of a moment by the very subtlest of inflections, achieving a mesmerizing symbiosis.
There’s some smoke and lighting effects, and the aforementioned mirror, but precious few of the other tropes of the modern arena show. No elaborate posturing, no silly dances. Sim does the occasional mid riff spin, but he looks quite sheepish afterwards as if he feels like he’s let himself down a bit. There’s no cinematic back projection, no descent into the crowd, no bringing people onto the stage, and definitely no huge bouncing balls that drop from the ceiling, such as occurred last time I was at this venue, for Elbow.
This is grown-up music played rather seriously for an audience of grown-ups, and while there is plenty of dancing on the tiers, at the back where I’m standing it’s mostly people listening intently with their heads cocked slightly to one side and a toe tapping gently in time.
Songs from new album I See You predominate in the set list, but their first album xx is not far behind, and old and new material mesh together to create a unified whole with only the subtlest of tweaks to the arrangements. But then again subtlety always was The xx’s strong suit.
There are constant changes of pace and emotional colour so that the audience’s interest never wavers. Brave For You arrives fragile and delicate but develops into a piece of noise-rock that has the temporary seating vibrating in time to the bass line, and it’s followed by Infinity, whose stillness is profound, the whip cracks slicing their way across the arena like the theme music for an unmade British western. The repeated five note riff that introduces Violent Noise is mesmerizing, and having opened the show with Say Something Loving, they close the main set with a cover of Smith’s Loud Places before returning for On Hold, Intro and Angel, neatly combining the best tracks from each of their albums into ten minutes of achingly pretty encore, and proving that I needn’t have worried about them really.