South London trio showcase sophisticated evolution at triumphant homecoming show.
Back in October 2010 at the United Palace Theatre in Harlem, New York, The xx gave a grand finale to an intensive year’s touring following the release of their Mercury Prize winning debut album ‘xx’. The ornately decorated 1930s former cinema hall proved to be the perfect foil to the delicate restraint of the trio who, even against the theatre’s vast proportions, seemed movie star tall and sure. There was no trace of the shoe-gazing teenagers who’d almost whispered through their early gigs.
Almost two years on, ahead of a summer of festival appearances and their long-awaited second album, The xx had arranged three intimate London gigs this week as warm-ups. The final of the three was a performance last night at south London’s Battersea Arts Centre, in its grandness recalling that night in Harlem.
“Our second ever show was on this street when we were 16,” said Oliver Sim with a grin in-between songs, one new then one old. “It’s bringing back memories.” The audience gathered in the beautiful main hall had clearly not forgotten a thing either: as Romy Madley Croft sang “I am yours now” at the familiar climax of Islands, 800 voices sang it back to her.
Behind the two of them, Jamie xx’s set-up had grown in sophistication, assembling a mini-orchestra. Large tom-tom drums and various percussion sat to side of the stage, with steel drums and electronic kit in the centre and keyboards on the other side. Songs which in the past might have been relied on programming now had an organic, visceral layer.
Romy and Oliver’s roles had also been finely tuned, the focus on the non-duet duets of their early material seeming to have been largely foregone for separate but supported moments in the spotlight. The first song of the night, surely the shoe-in for the first single, was a new, as-yet-untitled one led by Romy. “Being as in love with you as I am,” she repeated, over a silvery, snaking guitar line as Jamie kept time on the tom-toms. Listen to a snippet from Tuesday’s show below. Even in this muddy, phone speaker recording the poignancy shines through.
Later Oliver took the lead role on another new song, setting down his guitar to cradle the mic. His deep, soulful voice struck a chord somewhere between mournful and sultry, recalling the casual confidence of Chris Rea in his hey-day. “He has the ultimate come-to-bed voice,” said a guy in the audience to his friend. This was The xx all grown up: sophisticated, seductive yet somehow still so innocent.
Throughout they’d tinkered with and tweaked the old tracks, somewhat incredibly, especially to a roomful of devoted fans, always to the song’s benefit. They changed the pace of many of them, including Crystallised which tripped the audience to sing the “ai-ee-ai-ee-ai” line sweetly out of time more than once. On this first listen, the new tracks felt more epic, more extrovert, yet the framework retained that trademark sparseness. Somehow they did it, hit that magic balance: raised the game but retained their charm. Masters of reducing complex emotions to their simplest, soul-baring form, The xx couldn’t have said it more clearly last night: we’re back.