There’s one simple fact about the xx that gets overlooked so often that, frankly, it’s a little upsetting. Before any review of their live show can really begin, we must all accept this one mostly unspoken, yet totally fundamental element of this band’s existence:
The xx are goth as hell.
This genre designation should not only be a given truth, it should be something readily accepted and embraced by both the band and their fans. Yet, all too often, the band’s goth-ness flies under the radar. In fact, the inherent goth-ness of the xx might seem like an absurd proposal to even the most hardcore and informed xx fans.
However, what do we look for in goth artists? I’m talking gothic rock, which first began 40-ish years ago with the rise of Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Nick Cave’s various bands, and the Cure. With these prototypical artists as our guides, we can set out some basic criteria for determining whether or not a band is goth:
- They dress in all black, with some silver studded accessories.
- Their guitars are drenched in echoes, with lots of simple, memorable riffs.
- They love cheesy drum patterns with unfunky, driving beats.
- They use some synthesizers to create atmosphere and drones, but synths are rarely ever the focus of a song’s melody.
- Almost all their songs are sad, but you also know they’re always low-key singing about sex.
- Many of their songs are addressed to a “you,” or sometimes an inclusive “we,” because they live for drama.
- Their instrumentation sometimes exhibits a tendency towards the melodramatic.
- Their lyrics are either sung in a plain, low voice, or straight-up whispered into the microphone.
- At least one member, preferably the guitarist, has shoulder length black hair that hangs over their face while they play.
If a band fulfills half of those criteria, I would consider them goth-adjacent. If they fulfill a majority of those criteria, there would be little doubt that the band is goth. The xx fulfill all of those criteria, and then some!
It might pain a hardcore Cure fan to admit that “VCR” is our generation’s “Close to Me,” but the parallels in structure and theme are unmistakable. The xx’s first single ever was essentially a variation on a Joy Division riff, and one could be forgiven for mistaking some of their more vibe-y guitar parts for classic instrumental goths the Durutti Column.
With that said, their live show at Bill Graham Auditorium on Monday night was decidedly un-goth.
The show was their third at the venue in three days, and the band rightfully treated the night as a victory lap. They turned the unassuming album cut “Shelter” into a 7 minute hands-in-the-air jam, played “I Dare You” like they were U2 performing a stadium show in 2002, and closed their set with a ridiculously full-sounding version of Jamie xx’s “Loud Places.”
Lighting effects created pitch perfect color gradients to match the moods set by the words and music of dual lead vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims. The stage was lined by a dozen (very very tall) mirrors, as an homage to the mirrored cover of the band’s most recent effort, I See You (2017). Each of the mirrors rotated in perfect synchrony with James Thomas Smith’s (a.k.a. Jamie xx) array of synths and drum machines, made visible to the audience via a giant precariously hanging mirror, which existed in the nether space above the band and tilted towards the audience. It was neat.
To a fan who hadn’t kept up with the growth of the xx since their classic 2009 debut, the band’s arena-ready setup would prove extremely jarring. How could such a soft-spoken group with such dark, private themes fill a stage with more coordinated lighting and production than some of the most excessive EDM performers?
The xx’s rise to prominence was a unique product of the often private way in which we consume music in the digital streaming age. We weren’t blasting the xx in our cars on summer afternoons with the windows open, or hearing them incessantly on any radio stations. Instead, many first heard the band’s songs on Youtube channels like Majestic Casual, which gained millions of subscribers in the early 2010s for posting hundreds of songs with vague lyrics and space-y ambience, perfect for study playlists. Pay any amount of attention to their songs and you probably won’t find any more or less meaning in them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Even for the most excited fans, it’s hard to defend their music as “exciting.” As critic Jeff Weiss recently put it, “The xx write some of best songs on your Sex Playlist of Songs Used in Car Commercials.” They’re inoffensive, marketable, and intentionally vague in nearly every way.
This makes it all the more incredible that the xx has become a legitimately exciting live rock band. The band’s performance Monday night never felt delicate or empty, with updated arrangements breathing new life into old favorites and new tracks showcasing the sampling talents of the group’s very own Jamie xx.
Whether you find their music exciting or monotonous, goth or not, the band’s live performance clearly hit all the right notes for their doting audience. By the time the band came out for an encore of their Hall-and Oates-sampling new single, “On Hold,” they had the crowd firmly in their pocket, singing along ever so gently to every word.
Sampha, a beautiful R&B angel whom I suspect may literally be an angel from heaven up above, opened the show. Because of the extensive work needed to build the xx’s stage, Sampha’s set was an absurdly early 8pm, and the crowd was way smaller than he deserved.
However, no amount of xx fans loudly making their way into the auditorium could obscure the pure beauty of “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” or lessen the impact of the devastating chorus of “Reverse Faults.” For the record: Sampha is not goth, but I’m almost 100% sure he’s emo.
Written by Matthew Sater
Photos by Annie Nguyen