The xx at Pabst Theater
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It’s tough to make a living selling records these days, but The xx seems to be doing okay at it. Both in its native U.K. and in the U.S., largely through heavy television saturation, the band’s 2009 debut and the new Coexist have garnered plenty of critical acclaim and keep flying off the shelves. With extremely minimalist pop music like this, the challenge is making a compelling stage show out of subdued songs about shy kids fumbling through relationships, particularly when the audience is full of drunk teenagers who will swoon no matter what goes down onstage. Sunday night at the sold-out Pabst Theater, The xx pulled it off.
One trick is to bring along support so boring, you’re bound to shine by contrast. Opening act 2:54 played humdrum grunge-lite with zero conviction, like a whole set of The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” but without a hint of Delores O’Riordan’s charisma. Next up was Spanish DJ John Talabot. The beginning of his set was basically cheesy new age/ambient with a barely danceable beat, and he milked the same octave-vocal maneuver as The xx. But Talabot gradually drifted into more infectious synth-pop territory, and actually had the room entranced for his last couple of tunes. During the lengthy setup break that followed, as the air got increasingly stale in a stew of sweet perfumes and dry ice, it was tough to imagine The xx matching that level of intensity.
But The xx’s next trick was the key to the show: hiring a true artist to design the light show. Throughout the band’s hour-long set, the pale glows and sharp strobe bursts were at least as captivating as the music, tasteful and powerful without being overbearing. While The xx’s songs can be tiresomely similar, the moody lighting schemes were different for each one, creating depth and dynamic where there otherwise would’ve been very little. But that’s not to say the stars were listless or uninspired. Romy Madley-Croft and especially Oliver Sim have become more mature as singers, both exuding a more convincing sexuality onstage instead of just cute, post-adolescent longing, and Jamie Smith orchestrated everything on the electronic and percussion end very effectively.
While the newer songs sounded essentially the same as on the album, the band has come up with some interesting new arrangements for most of the older tracks. The iconic guitar hook of “Crystalised” was removed completely in favor of a stripped-down, atmospheric haze, a complete reinvention of one of the group’s most-loved songs. The showstopper was “Infinity,” with Smith bashing away at his cymbal while Madley-Croft repeatedly moaned “Can’t give it up” in her most convincingly emotional moment. Yes, these young Brits are stretching clichéd lyrics and a monotonous vocal gimmick to their creative limits, but if this show was any indication, they aren’t mailing in their live show by any stretch.