Wednesday night may have been one of the better bookings in recent Showbox history. The xx are prefacing their tour in support of upcoming record Coexist with a string of gigs at smaller venues. Their “big” show for the new record will be at the Paramount on October 6 (which you can get tickets for here), but for those lucky enough to grab tickets to their Showbox at the Market date, the xx put on a real treat. The show was paperless – the band obviously wanted people there who weren’t trying to make money off the scarce tickets (it sold out months ago). Furthermore, the opener acts were both perfect compliments to the xx sound in completely different ways. All round, this show was phenomenal.
Opening the evening was a short DJ set by rising electronic artist Jacques Greene. Starting with his own material, Greene shifted into some great UK bass and house cuts. But nothing was predictable with Greene. Halfway through his set, after building the energy with more four to the floor beats, he cuts everything and drops the crowd halfway into Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange track “Pyramids”. He layers house beats over the transition and then lets the beat drop as Frank’s vocals come on. Greene is singing along – so is half the crowd. It was a fantastic transition and everyone knows it. From there, Greene kept the trend of mixing R&B and electronic until the end of his set. If you think about it, Greene was the perfect act to warm the crowd up for the xx. In his time outside the xx, Jamie Smith has been DJing, remixing artists like Adele, Florence + the Machine, and Radiohead, and working on similarly energized electronic projects like his “Far Nearer” 12″ single and his re-imagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, called We’re New Here. This material, much like Greene’s, falls comfortably into the progressive UK electronic scene alongside Burial, Four Tet, and the more recent work of Thom Yorke. Thus, it was no surprise that Greene would be spinning these types of tracks in anticipation of the xx’s Showbox Market debut.
Next up on stage was Seattle’s own Perfume Genius – the intimate and very personal work of Mike Hadreas. The setup was simple – Hadreas manned half of the tracks alone with his piano. For the other half, he was joined by a simple drum set and backing synth organ, but the focus remained on Hadreas’s haunting vocals and piano lines. The songs of Perfume Genius are heavy-hearted and beautiful, despite their relative simplicity. But I seriously doubt that Hadreas sees the minimalism of his songs to be any sort of deterrent. Songs like “AWOL Marine” have the opportunity to weigh heavily on your heart because you aren’t distracted from the sheer beauty of Hadreas’s unabashed honesty to himself. As always, this makes Perfume Genius a joy to watch live. But in this special context of opening up for the xx, it couldn’t be more appropriate. Since their debut, the xx have lost original member Baria Qureshi. But now more than ever, the group of three focuses on their individual strengths to put forth a minimalist sound that is unlike any other. Not two weeks ago, the xx released “Angels”, the first single from Coexist. The track is possibly their simplest yet, and in the modern pop context, you’d be hard-pressed to find a track as stripped down and honest as this one. It’s the songs like this where the xx shines the most, and that, as Perfume Genius also shows us, comes from an unapologetic desire to be honest to yourself and honest to your sound. No amount of track layering and vocal doubling and post-production will ever compensate for that. As Perfume Genius finishes off his set with “Katie”, Oliver Sim is off stage left bobbing his head to the tune. He gets it.
After all stage excess is stripped away, the platform is set for the xx. Jamie’s massive setup of drum pads, steel drums, keyboards, MPCs, and otherwise stands ominously in the background. Romy’s Gibson Les Paul is set far stage right and Oliver’s Fender P-Bass lays far stage left. No monitors scatter the stage – just strobe lights and fog machines filling the room with ambience and tension. As the band emerges, the crowd goes bonkers. But the three stay solemn, coming on stage quietly and manning their respective instruments. And with nods between the three of them, Romy taps two guitar pedals and starts in on the intro to “Angels”. The rapturous applause soon turns to silence – after all, the new single is all about the addition of every little piece to make the puzzle fit. After the first verse, Oliver comes in, swinging his bass left and right with every note as Romy continues. Finally, after the chorus, Jamie comes in on the drums, but only enough to provide sharp accents to every harmony. The song is all anticipation, and the crowd is dying, trying to decide whether they want to scream shouts of joy or just listen to the band do their phenomenal work. In the end it’s a mixture of both. As Romy finishes off the last of the song, the crowd explodes. But they don’t have much time to give applause – Jamie’s already started in on the drums to “Islands” and the xx aren’t waiting for anyone.
“Islands” goes straight into “Heart Skipped A Beat” and everyone in the crowd sings along. After this one, the band takes a quick reprieve. The lights go down and a stage hand runs on holding a large transparent podium with a sampler adorning the top. He sets it in front of Oliver, who puts down his bass for this one track – it’s a new one. You can tell the crowd has never heard it before, but that’s not stopping them from losing their minds. Keeping well on their promise several months ago of a “clubbier” new album, the track is dark, lurching, and glorious. Oliver floats around stage swaying this way and that to the beat. Jamie is manning too many instruments to count in the background while Romy keeps the lead guitar at the forefront. As the vocals start in, Oliver towers off the edge of the stage glaring down at the crowd below – girls swoon. The new material is better than anyone could have anticipated, and its allowed the xx to make some fun adjustments to their live dynamic. The track is easily their most energetic yet, so as a follow up, Oliver grabs his bass and he and Romy start in on a stripped and slowed down version of “Crystalised”. The contrast is brilliant. With every new song, there is a complimentary old one that makes you appreciate both even more, and over an hour and a half, Coexist soon became the most anticipated album of the year for everyone in the room.
The setlist is a dream come true. They play the whole first album and five or six new tunes in perfect synchronicity. The club aspects of the new material never ever overshadow what the xx has come to stand for. Romy and Oliver’s counterpoint, both vocally and instrumentally, is the focal point. But deservedly, Jamie’s presence is felt more strongly on Coexist material. His dark, throbbing beats and eclectic mixture of samples and sound provide perfect supplement to all other textures on stage. But unlike so many sound junkies today, Jamie never overdoes it. With the xx, you can feel love in every single note – there’s no fat anywhere on the tracks because the three want the notes they play to be played at 110%, and that’s exactly what they do.
I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone in the crowd went home and immediately bought tickets to see the xx again in October. If the band proved anything, they proved that Coexist would not pigeonhole them into repeating their self-titled debut. The xx is evolving, and you’d do well to follow wherever they choose to go. You can pre-order Coexist now via the xx website. Check out more pictures below: