The xx, nothing short of fantastic, at the Pabst Theater
A stunning stage show at the Pabst completed the "perpetual twilight" sound of the xx, and the group's first time live in Milwaukee was a true success.
The xx seemed to come out of nowhere with their self-titled debut in 2009, an album so developed and mature, it was hard to believe that it was created by a group of 20 year olds from London. While their influences weren’t entirely hidden (the album brought to mind everyone from Interpol to Massive Attack), the album was far from a throwback, viewing the familiar sounds of guitar-based post punk and downtempo electronica through a very modern lens.
The band’s choice of openers for the show made perfect sense, representing the two main elements of the xx’s music. 2:54‘s straightforward indie rock sounded something like PJ Harvey fronting Denali, while John Talabot‘s trance-y electronica recalled some of the more recent output of the Kompakt label. In what I can assume was a rather conscious decision, the two openers did a fine job of pleasing the diverse tastes of the audience, preparing them for the culmination of sounds to follow.
The xx took the stage soon after, cooler and more debonair than ever in their signature black garb. The set opened with “Angels,” the first single off of Coexist.
“If someone believed me/ they would be as in love with you as I am,” sang Romy Madley-Croft, a single spotlight shining down on her as she gracefully delivered her hushed vocals to her audience, who eagerly delivered the lyrics back to her.
Judging by both the size and energy of the audience, you’d never guess this was the band’s first time in Milwaukee. “We apologize for taking our time to come to your beautiful city,” said bassist and vocalist Oliver Sim. “We’re incredibly grateful to be here.”
The xx’s music illustrates a world of perpetual twilight, similar to that of The Weeknd. The mood is primarily achieved through their albums’ production, both of which possess a very cold and sterile aesthetic. While having to recreate this atmosphere live must not be easy, on a sonic level, the xx seem to do it effortlessly, with Madley-Croft’s reverb-soaked guitar leads filled out by Sim’s rhythmic bass and percussionist Jamie Smith’s tight electronic grooves.
While some electronic-based acts tend to subscribe to the “hitting the space bar on a Macbook and awkwardly dancing” method of performance, the electronic elements of the xx’s sound are performed with character and precision, with Smith manually hammering out patterns on samplers and drum pads.
The recreation of the atmosphere was completed by one of the more impressive stage shows I’ve seen. Complex lighting beamed from the stage, shifting shape and size as the band played on. Smoke machines cast a hazy fog throughout the theater. Acrylic lightboxes bearing their “x” logo sat on the stage, with a giant lighted “x” revealed later in the set. At times, the lighting became synced with the dynamics and rhythms of the music. Had it been overdone, its charm would have quickly faded, but it was thankfully used just enough to give the desired effect.
Being that the group only has two albums to their name, they played nearly every song in their repertoire, sans a few off of Coexist. The setlist was well balanced, steadily shifting between the two albums, so as to not bore their audience with too many in a row from one or the other. Some of the highlights included the hit “Islands,” the steel-drum heavy “Reunion“, and Coexist standout track “Chained.” Stepping offstage after “Infinity,” the band returned for a short encore, appropriately opening with the instrumental fan favorite “Intro.” This one found the audience at its most active, and—for just a minute—the Pabst became something of a downtempo disco.
Has indie rock become more accessible, or have the tastes of the mainstream become more refined? Very rarely do we see music as dark as the xx’s be so warmly embraced by the mainstream, but when it happens, (like with Depeche Mode’s Violator, for example) it tends to happen in a rather large way.
Sunday’s performance at the Pabst was nothing short of fantastic, and with their first visit to Milwaukee a success, this may have been our only chance to catch them in this intimate of a setting. Go on with your bad selves, xx.
Check out the video below from the Pabst/Riverside YouTube Channel.
For more reviews from the Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater and Turner Hall Ballroom, visit TCD’s Mil Music Page.