“I’m not exactly — none of us are exactly — born for the stage,” producer Jamie xx told The Seattle Times in 2010. He wasn’t wrong; neither he, bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim, nor guitarist/vocalist Romy Madley Croft employ amazing looks or pop-star charisma. Yet as the xx, they’ve played to crowds nearly 100,000 strong. Friday night at the Palace, the London trio showed off their seasoned stage chops; the hit-packed show was so affecting and crisp it could’ve been a concert film.
It feels funny calling the xx’s whispery, bare songs hits, but the word is appropriate. All three of their albums (xx, Coexist, and I See You) cracked the Billboard Top 100, with Coexist peaking at #5 and I See You hitting #2 in February. “Shelter,” “Islands,” and “Angels” are cult favorites, and I can’t think of a more iconic “Intro.” For I See You, the band has turned to more sample-heavy, beat-driven tunes, thanks to the success of Jamie xx’s solo album In Colour (2015).
The xx brought those songs and more to the Palace on Friday. Their minimal songs unfolded like orchids in the first half. Madley Croft built a bridge with honest, new-old song “Performance” (an I See You track they’ve been performing since 2014). And they ended with a veritable dance party (helmed by Jamie xx, who should’ve played an eternal DJ set). Throughout the show, Sim and Madley Croft would face each other on center stage and ceremoniously play their instruments; Jamie xx two-stepped behind them.
A sense of scale walloped me during “Crystalised,” one of the xx’s earliest songs (in fact, the music video features guitarist Baria Qureshi, who was kicked out in 2010). “Crystalised” starts like a tentative touch, guitar phrases sidling closer, not making eye contact. But while I listened, I noticed the way the proscenium stretched so tall above the band; it echoed the enormous popularity of their minimal songs. Startled, I almost took a step back. This band plays festivals all over the world, and there they were 30 feet in front of me.
Sim addressed the intimate setting later on, mentioning their recent appearance at “one of your country’s largest festivals” and saying how nice it was to see the audience’s faces. He took the lead on audience engagement, nailing the balance between reticent and chatty that so many “introvert” bands struggle with. Before the encore’s last song (“Angels”), he pointed to a front-row fan and said, “We’ve had a little chat backstage […] We love you.” He imitated the fan’s dance moves to generous laughter.
For a good part of the show, I actually felt like I was at a festival, standing outside under the moon. Maybe it’s from all the videos I’ve seen of them performing en plein air, but I could feel the crowd’s body heat mixing with cool night air, hovering at that perfect temperature just a little cooler than your skin. During “Crystalised,” the sky seemed to curl around the trio, mixing with the colored strobes that show up so often at festivals.
Either way, the crowd ranked up there with the happiest I’ve seen at a show. Many had been waiting to see the band for years; “It’s been a very long time,” Sim noted, since the band played First Avenue in 2012. In face, barely anyone took out their phones, instead grinning and watching the stage. At one point, I looked back and caught the balcony’s standing ovation.
“Loud Places” must be singled out as a pivotal song in the band’s career and show. It belongs to the Jamie xx album, but it “inspired a hunger” for Madley Croft, the song’s featured vocalist. It also pushed them to write songs like “Dangerous” and “On Hold.” It was never a given they’d play it live, but when they did, it was every bit as cleansing as I’d hoped.
There’s so much good writing about the xx that I’ve been worried it overshadows their music. I started calling myself a fan not after hearing a song or album but after reading Laura Snapes’s fantastic profile for Pitchfork; I went into the Palace afraid I’m just a sucker for their narrative as grade school friends who break big. But any suspicions that I’d leave the show underwhelmed gave way to just the opposite; I exited grinning, almost as giddy as some of the superfans I spotted, even though I’d just been blinking away tears.
The crowd loved Sampha’s opening set, too, although his disorganized band undersold his work. The electro-soul keyboardist/singer released debut album Process in February after collaborating with game-killers Drake, Solange, and SBTRKT on different projects. He shares a label (Young Turks) with the xx and remixed their song “Basic Space” in 2009. But while his studio output has been well-received, his show never locked into place, despite catchy song “Under” and crowd favorite “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano.” Lots of soul radiated through his minimal beats and throaty, mumbled vocals, but he and his band never pinned down a groove.
The xx setlist
Say Something Loving
I Dare You
Brave For You
Shelter (live remix)
Loud Places (Jamie xx song)