Show Review: The xx, Phantogram at The Great American Music Hall, 6/1/10

by Dakin Hardwick on June 2, 2010

In case you didn't know the name of the band...

Whenever a hot new band bursts on to the scene, there is inevitably a backlash. At some point, all of the critics, bloggers, and tastemakers that once adored a band eventually decide that they no longer have that affection they once did. They start calling the band boring, and then they start following something else. Although many people complain about the backlash, I think it’s time to embrace it. Because seeing a band during the backlash is the best time to see them. The people that are only at the show to brag about being at the show are gone, as well as the hipsters in the back that are only at the show because “they are supposed to be.” Instead, you get to really enjoy the music, and it feels really good to be in a room full of pure fans.

There is no denying that The xx are in their backlash period. In the 10 short months since their debut record was unleashed amongst the masses, they’ve gone from the next big thing to the most boring band around. That last band to have such an ascension/descent-ion may have been Vampire Weekend, and their recovery from the critical backlash was nothing short of spectacular, and if last night’s show at the Great American Music Hall was any indication, get ready for to see The xx selling out 3,000 seat-ers around the country in 2012.

Opening the show was Phantogram, a two-piece band from Saratoga Springs, NY, that managed to be the the loudest mellow band on earth. They blended together elements of trip-hop, hip-hop, krautrock, trance, and shoegaze in a very unique and exhilarating way. Sarah Barthel handled keyboards, samples, and vocals without skipping a beat, while guitarist/co-vocalist Josh Carter kept it loud enough to insure that nobody in a 3 block radius could have a proper conversation. The beats were chill, yet danceable, and the band managed to vary things up enough to keep the crowd interested.

After their 40 minute set, which was so loud the my earplugs practically shook out, we were greeted by a surprisingly quick set change. (I must point out that the show started at 8:05, and the headliners took the stage at 9:00. Thank you, Great American, for insuring that us older folks can be in bed at a reasonable hour on school nights.) What was to be seen on stage was one of the most fascinating band set ups that I have seen in years. We had two vocal mikes, one for the bassist on the right and the singer on the left. In the middle, we had two tables set up, both with a giant X on their faces, and a ride cymbal in the middle. Off to the side hid a snare, floor tom, and a handful of guitar pedals that were used only once during the set.

The band opened up with the first track off their eponymous debut full length, the appropriately titled “Intro,” which is a rare moment when the short instrumental piece designed to set the tone of the record becomes a fan favorite in it’s own right. Bassist Oliver Sim and guitarist Romy Madley Croft are playing nearly motionless on their own sides of the stage, while the band’s secret weapon, Jamie Smith, is sweating up a storm, playing a drum pad with one hand on one of the tables while handling keyboard duties with the other hand. Throughout the first few songs, it feels as if the two string player/singers are unaware of what kind of madness is going on behind them, just as long as everything sounds good.

At about three songs into the set, I start wondering to myself about the biggest complaint people have about The xx. That they are a boring live act. This couldn’t be further from truth. True, Croft, as the female, is usually the center of attention for any band, and she did, in fact, keep her feet still for the majority of the set. But her fierce, soulful voice shined with an intensity that few singers this side of Christina Aguilera could pull off. Her eyes also managed to tell the kind of tales that most people couldn’t tell with use of their entire body. It was a full scale, arena sized performance that came from the barest minimum of movements.

Although, if you were looking for a band with frantic dancing energy, all you needed to do was look to the right, and there was Sim. He is very tall and slender with incredibly long limbs and fingers, and he played his bass as high as possible, creating the illusion of a man that is part tyrannosaurus, part salamander, part gymnast. He moved to the fascinating, minimalist beats that they composed and really helped show that this group truly does do “dance” music.

But, once again, the star of the show was Jamie Smith. For all of Sim’s inhuman dance moves, it was hard not to focus on Smith. When original keyboardist Baria Qureshi quit the band, I was expecting them to just use a laptop to take her place. Instead, Smith played every part she played, as well as his own amazing rhythm tracks simultaneously. ┬áThis is not a simple task, and his concentration was amazing, yet he never looked like he wasn’t having fun. I would pay good money to just watch him make music.

Of course it felt good since this was a show that fans came out to and not just the hipsters. People danced, people sang along, people were having fun, which is something you don’t often see with a lot of bands the first time they come around. The set was short, a mere hour long, which is fine because in that short hour, we saw a brilliant performance by the kind of band that has gotten comfortable with where they are, and you know they are in it for the long haul, unlike the short attention spanned hipsters, who are already way past this so you don’t have to worry about them getting in your way.

BTW, I snapped a shot of the set list:

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

casey June 3, 2010 at 8:11 am

great review; i agree wholeheartedly. although many people think the xx is a boring band, sonically they are very impressive. i enjoy them because they seem to practice restraint with their music…in a really good way.

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caro.lina. June 3, 2010 at 10:13 am

Man, I really wish I was in SF yesterday and the day before, to photograph them.
Great review.

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jk June 3, 2010 at 10:17 am

the xx are great live. The only people that think they are boring are not listening to the interplay between the two vocalists. The tension created by the restraint shown in their compositions is what makes their music so compelling. It is the attention deficit people on their iPhones that don’t get it.

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Tan The Man June 3, 2010 at 7:23 pm

I surprisingly agree.

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Gordon Elgart June 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Wasn’t I with you when we sat on the roof rather than watch their set?

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ann June 12, 2010 at 10:37 am

yeah, i remember being hesitant to see the xx perform at the independent back in november based on prior concert reviews, but i’m glad i saw them. despite being the opening act at the time…to me, they stole the show and it’s still one of my favorites that i’ve attended. absolutely a great band to see live and the bass is absolutely killer and still resonates in my memory. wish i could’ve caught this show as the great american is a nice medium-sized, yet intimate venue. and i love the fact they start on time. i went to a show there once and was amazed i left from there well before midnight!

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