Images courtesy of Stephanie Berger
“I’ll put on a performance,” goes the chorus of one of the new songs that The xx played at the final of 25 intimate shows at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. And it really was a special performance, both musically and in terms of the brilliant stage setup, given on Saturday night to an audience of under 50 people that included Jay Z, Beyonce, and Madonna.
No celebrity appearances or clever stage setups, however, should take away from the incredible self-awareness that this still young trio must possess to undertake a show of this nature. Very few bands, coming off extensive touring, would take the time and effort to, as lead singer Romy Madley-Croft explained, “flip the whole idea of a show,” and create an environment so perfectly suited to their sound.
Although The xx’s music is not made to be performed on huge festival stages on sunlit summer afternoons, the band makes it work in those situations because they are such professionals. When their songs are performed in an environment that they have total control over, with a stage setup that is designed specifically to enhance the hushed beauty and emotional honesty of their songs, it is elevated from music to something cult-like and almost religious in nature.
On Saturday night, The xx physically trapped me for 50 minutes in a mysterious, intensely intimate experience.
On Saturday night, The xx physically trapped me for 50 minutes in a mysterious, intensely intimate experience. The Park Avenue Armory’s usual entrance is a rather grandiose foyer, steeped in history, but for this very special show I ducked out of the night’s driving rain through an unmarked side-door (as per the instructions, sent only a few hours prior to the show), marked only by a single attendant, appropriately clad in all black. After a short wait in a shabby cellar which, if the dumpsters were any indication, is usually the trash room, we were given that most surprising of 21st century commands.
“The band asks that you turn your phones off. Yes, off.”
As people fumbled with devices—”I don’t even turn this thing off on a plane,” someone muttered—more officials with headsets ushered us from our cellar, past Madonna and her entourage, and on a serpentine journey through the underbelly of the Armory. Though no such command had been given, everybody was already speaking in hushed tones as they walked in single file past broken pianos and dust covered paintings, and by the time we were fed into a winding, black corridor, silence had fallen. The strange mixture of excitement and nervousness that this surprisingly theatrical build-up encouraged gave way to surprise as I spilled from the darkness into a dimly lit cube, in the center of which, standing still and emotionless on a slightly lowered square performance area, were the three members of The xx.
There was surprise at being suddenly so close to (and looking down at) a band who are usually viewed over the heads of other concertgoers on a raised stage. Surprise at just how close the white walls and ceiling of the performance space were, pushing all the attention and energy inwards, toward the band. Surprise at Jamie xx’s hardware-intensive setup which included multiple keyboards, drums, synth pads, CDJs, and a steel drum. Surprise that I could see the countless scuff marks the band’s shoes had left on the polished black floor over the preceding 24 performances, and surprise that I could see Jamie’s bright red socks, the only flash of color in the band’s all black attire.
The idea of a concert, inverted, was highlighted by the fact that the band was standing waiting for us, the audience, rather than vice versa. Truly the opposite of the usual live music experience. As I was still processing all this information, Romy Madley-Croft (guitar, vocals) and Oliver Sim (bass, vocals) briefly locked eyes before launching, without introduction or welcome, into the delicate opening notes of “Angels.”
The contrasting male/female vocals of Madley-Croft and Sim define The xx’s sound, and this interplay was amplified by the duo’s movements throughout the performance, a series of loosely choreographed interactions. Essentially, their movements became a physical manifestation of the romantic tension and passion that runs through the music. One moment, they were standing face to face, mere centimeters apart, eyes boring into each other with a palpable intensity, and the next they were on opposites sides of their small square stage, with Sim’s movements mirroring Madley-Croft’s in a sinister approximation of a hunter and its prey.
Certainly, it was theatrical when Sim wrapped the microphone lead around his shoulders and loped towards a sullen Madley-Croft, who was standing in the corner close enough to hit the audience with her guitar, to sing the shared opening lines of “Tides.” But this was always meant to be a piece of musical theater—it had a director, Molly Hawkins, and a creative designer, Tobias G. Rylander—and most impressively, a stage setup that mutated throughout the performance. During the first few songs, the oppressively close walls and ceiling were slowly lit up with subdued lighting, similar to the oily textures of the Coexist album cover, and eventually lit up brightly during a devastatingly beautiful rendition of “Fiction.”
But the real surprises were still to come.
As the band played a gentle new song with the chorus, “We had a system of touch,” the ceiling suddenly started rising upwards, the first hint that the seemingly solid cube which we were trapped in was actually situated in a much bigger space. A little later, a brief moment of silence was broken by the opening lines of “Shelter,” a stunningly honest, personal song that was performed here with reinforced percussion. As I focused on Romy’s hands playing that instantly recognizable melody, noticing that I could hear her pick on the strings infinitesimally before hearing the actual note, something started moving in my peripheral vision.
As she reached for the climactic, heart-rending, “Can I make it better / With the lights turned off,” the white walls of the cube suddenly fell to the floor, revealing the breathtakingly vast expanse of the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall. It is no exaggeration to say that you could fit a football field in the hall, and the sudden sense of space was overwhelming. I had gone from feeling like an impostor watching the private moments of others to just another small body stuck in the center of a vast, dark space.
Over subsequent songs, which included another new one with the crushing couplet, “You stopped trying to find me / But I’m still playing hide and seek,” the lights in the hall rose and rose, revealing large speaker stacks on all sides (explaining the excellent sound) and the lofty metal arches of the drill hall’s cavernous ceiling. The performance ended with the one two punch (or should that be gentle caress?) of Coexist tracks ”Missing” and “Chained,” and, with the lights finally bright enough to see the whole hall, and the rest of the audience, I noticed Jay Z and Beyoncé standing mere meters away from me, clapping as enthusiastically as everyone else—just two more fans who had been standing enraptured by The xx for 50 minutes.
You stopped trying to find me / But I’m still playing hide and seek.
In fact, as we all trooped off the raised stage and started the long walk from the center of the Drill Hall to the exit doors, everyone still quiet as if part of a church service, someone started clapping again. An overeager fan perhaps? No, it was just Beyoncé, who looks much more petite in person than you might expect, beaming from ear to ear, pointing at the band and letting them know that they had, indeed, put on a fantastic show.
The xx creates moments of sweeping, grandiose beauty by perfectly combining a few simple elements. That aesthetic carried through their whole performance at the Park Avenue Armory on Saturday, as they used what were essentially suspended white sheets, some colored lights, and their own bodies to complement their already incredible songs. This turned the experience from an intimate gig into something more meaningful.
For nearly an hour, The xx were transformed from pop artists into living, breathing reflections of every up and down faced in romantic involvement with another human. They touched on everything from our petty insecurities and self-doubts to the tender triumph of eventually loving and being loved. And they did it all while making us feel like we were part of something much, much bigger than we realized.