Last Wednesday night, I uncharacteristically spent a school night out; more specifically, I went to Atlanta's Variety Playhouse to see the xx, "an alarmingly young British band that plays meticulous, mesmerizing pop songs influenced, in part, by contemporary R&B and electronic music," as they were described in today's New York Times.
Their style may indeed stem from a variety of mainstream pop influences, but their approach veers toward striking minimalism. Sparse arrangements are built around chilling synthisizers, pulsing rhythms, '80s-style guitar lines and R&B-influenced bass patterns. Their form is indeed emptiness and emptiness is indeed their form, as the Buddhists like to say.
Their self-titled debut cropped up on many of last year's Top 10 lists, although they had to open for other bands like The Big Pink and Micachu on their last tour. Last November, they played Atlanta's 529 club, a small venue and, like last year's Mayer Hawthorne set at the Drunken Unicorn, another wish-I-had-been-there event. This is their first tour as headliners, as bassist Oliver Sim announced during Wednesday's show; in fact, it was only the third night of their first headlining tour. The tour takes them to Webster Hall in New York City next Wednesday night, and on to the Paradise Theater in Boston for a Friday-night gig. I would encourage you to see them either of those nights if you should find yourself in either city.
Playing without a live drummer, the xx use silence and negative space to create an airy atmosphere, but they weren't always a trio. A fourth member, keyboardist-guitarist Baria Qureshi, left the band late last year, citing exhaustion. Here they are on the show Later Live... with Jools Holland last September performing Islands as a quartet, and their sound isn't considerably different.
The xx have a reputation for being aloof and for not moving much during live performances, and some early reviewers claimed that they they were put off by the band's seeming unwillingness to engage the audience in their performance. But at the Variety Playhouse, that didn't seem to be the case. Sure, they aren't a band inclined to throw a guitar up into the air or fall onto their knees as they strike a power chord, but Sims did at least engage in some between-songs banter, at one point announcing, "Congratulations, America, on your new health care" to rousing applause (and a few boos).
Like the Times' description of the band, the crowd was "alarmingly young," especially for a school night. It was an all-ages show, even though the venue sells beer and wine, and the crowd was noisy, not in the enthusiastic way that they cheered for Spoon last weekend, but in the talking-out-loud-with-friends-throughout-the-show kind of way. There's a lot of spare, quiet spaces in the xx's music, and the loud chatter of teenage girls filled nearly every one of those moments. But they did cheer loudly for the band at the end of each song, at least.
The entire concert was all over, including one encore by the band, by about 11:30 pm, and I got home before The Colbert Report had ended. The good thing about shoe-gazing music like the xx's is that you're not all wound up by the end of the night and can easily fall asleep. So despite having to get up early the next morning, I was not too tired on Thursday.
Such things are important to an old man.