November 30, 2009
When it comes to new bands, spontaneous ticket buying hasn’t always worked to my advantage. Somewhere between compulsion and reality, a band’s stock can drop like a rock either on a personal level or in the eyes of the masses. So back in August when Sam C. Mac at In Review Online was going on about sliced bread and a new band called The xx, I noticed that said band had just been booked for the end of November with The Friendly Fires at the Triple Rock. I picked up a ticket (and the album) only to get distracted and forget all about it. When the show was announced as sold out, and I initially cursed myself for not buying a ticket only to realize that my spontaneity had paid off this time. Almost behind my back, The xx blew up into one of the hottest tickets around, flooding the indie rock music scene with warm fuzzy excitement as well as tongue-clicking controversy when, after reportedly playing “approximately” 300 gigs at CMJ, they canceled some shows and lost a member due to “exhaustion.”
The Triple Rock is a small catchall club that hosts just about any kind of band that fits under the broad label of rock. It’s a self-service joint where you stand alongside band members at the bar buying cheap PBR before they scurry on stage to facilitate breakdown and set up of their own equipment. I show up shortly after doors opened ready to see a line formed outside the door for the highly anticipated opening band. The first surprise as I rounded the corner is there is no line, but my second surprise is the two massive tour buses parked outside that stretch far beyond the length of the club. Once inside, I noticed that stage right (near an exit door where the buses hummed) had been taped off for “staff only.” It was clear that The xx had no intention of making use of the Triple Rock’s modest facilities or cheap PBRs and planned on staying on their bus until show time. Most of the equipment for both bands had been set up: The xx gear crowded to one side of the stage and the Friendly Fires on the other side, partially covered with a tarp.
Set times were listed as 9pm for The xx and 10pm for The Friendly Fires, and as the clock edges closer to launch, the club fills. One of the band’s crew puts out set lists and tunes the guitars and a freelance photographer for Spin works possible angles behind me. Finally, the lights came down and the trio takes the stage with no fanfare of their own. Decked out in all black, The xx, visibly serious and focused, are not so much somber as they are low-key, with very little expression or acknowledgment of the audience. Given their age and the chaos that has surrounded them in the past few months, it is hard not to read into their subdued character. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim take the front of the stage with Jamie Smith situated just behind them with his synthesizer and keyboard set up on two box stands with a lit up “x” on each one. The lighting at the Triple Rock is pretty rudimentary, but this was absurd: whether by accident or design, the three members are almost entirely in the dark except when Sim moves up to the mic and catches the edge of a spotlight.
The xx don’t exactly have a sound that is new, but it is undeniably fresh. The atmospheric music and the languid vocals traded between Crofts and Sims has a dreamy, if not a little bittersweet, nostalgia that pulls you in. They roll into “Intro” and then straight into “VCR,” the first two tracks off their album. There is an added layer of irony when Croft sings “I think we’re superstars,” but she gives little notice to it, irreverent in what I read as concentration, not apathy. Listening to the songs live, I realize how openly they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves—“Shelter” nearly breaks your heart with its candidness. Four songs into their set I am surprised at how good they sound for a band that recently lost one member. That thought no more than crossed my mind when Sim steps up to the mic, addressing the audience for the first time, and says, “We only recently became a three piece, so we might fuck this one up.” The song he is talking about is “Crystalised,” one that prominently showcases what was probably the duel guitars of Croft and now x-member Baria Qureshi. Sure enough, they start the song only to stop and have to restart. There is no improvising here, but once they get started it sounds better than most live renditions of songs. They float through eight songs ending their very short 40-minute set with “Infinity” and a finale that includes Sims grabbing some drumsticks and working a personal moment of catharsis on the one symbol they have set up in front of Smith. And then, poof! They were gone. Back on the bus, probably looking at the map for the next gig.
About a third of the crowd leaves while The Friendly Fires set up the rest of their gear and spreading out onto the entire stage. My introduction to The Friendly Fires had only come a couple hours ago as I lingered on their MySpace page and listened to the songs they had to offer. The dance rock songs sounded good to me, and I am ready to stick around and give them a listen. What I am not ready for is the band coming on stage like a crazed three-man party. As soon as drummer Jack Savidge starts banging out the beats, lead singer Ed MacFarlane starts gyrating, cutting a rug like nobody’s business. For a moment, everyone, who had just been lulled into a state of tranquility by The xx, is in shock. MacFarlane is shaking his money-maker like no other performer I have seen, with Savidge and guitarist Edd Gibson exerting their own rabid energy into their instruments. I couldn’t find much compulsion to move myself, nor could most of the audience and MacFarlane chides us for it: “Come on! It’s like a library out there.” Despite the fact that there are some very enthusiast fans willing to please, no one in the house is going to win a dance off against MacFarlane. A bass, a sax and a horn fills out their raucous melodies. At one point, Gibson picks up what I think is a blender and uses it on his guitar. The Friendly Fires finish their set, barely going longer than The xx, but they cap it off with a lively encore.
The Friendly Fires’ energy is somewhat lost on me as someone not familiar with their songs, and they just leave me feeling worn out, but I am left with a lasting impression of The xx. It is hard to guess what the future hold for this young band and their short but solid set yielded few clues, but I hardly see them burning out or fading away any time soon. One thing is clear if you have looked at The xx’s tour schedule for the next few months: the three members left are not daunted by exhaustion. Literally hours before the sold out show at the Triple Rock, it was announced that The xx would be back in the Twin Cities in April, at a slightly larger and nicer venue, as headliners with jj—yet another ticket that will be hard to pass up.