Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The XX's in Philly March 29, 2010 Part II

The XX's @ First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, PA 3/29/10 (Poor picture quality due to loud low bass waves from the band discombobulating my limited pixels...that and shaky hand, cheap phone camera, and low lights)

After JJ departed and 30 minutes of roadie crew work involving getting the lights just right and the HUGE X alligned perfectly center, the XX's took to the stage, 3 young souls convening for services @ the First Unitarian Church.  They huddled around the keyboards and slowly went into the Intro, the first track from their self-named CD release.

My apologies are front-loaded for some minor key rants that are contained within this entry; the irritation has to do with the motes of sand flung by the sound stylings of the engineer at the show that were the source of an ever-growing pearl of disappointment.

And so to the show. The XX’s had started as a band of four; their only CD to date records them as such. Just before the American tour one of the members, vocalist /keyboardist/guitarist Baria Qureshi, opted to leave the group. The remaining 3 close friends, Jamie Smith, Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, sucked it up and continued on with the tour plans, which included a stopover in Austin at the S X SW annual music/film/video hoopla.

And how fortunate we are that they did. If there was ever a more polite and self-contained group of musicians to front a stage I’d like to be (formally, of course) introduced to them. These folks make their parents proud. Not the thorniest way to introduce a show involving rock musicians, I realize, but it’s got to be said. Are you more than tired of hearing of Amy Winehouse’s alcohol/drug/self-deluded repeated acts of rage? The XX’s are a stunning pleasure to watch perform. Low key, tight, deflective and reflective. The 3 remaining members have been friends since early childhood and their intimate closeness comes through in their performance.

If only their performance were allowed to show through completely... For those of you familiar with their album, the vocals of Ms. Croft and Mr. Sim are central to their music. The signature guitar playing of Ms. Croft is an excellent framing of the lyrics and, more specifically, her whispery singing. She manages to inject an "uh-uh" into most of her utterances, all discretely, while Mr. Sim's soothing low voice provides a solid walkway for the songs' passage through the cool. With the exception of one song on the CD, Fantasy, there is nary a note of shudder nor shake. The CD shimmers. "Fantasy" was a clue as to how the sound engineer at the show was to opt to present the band sound. Disturbing bass came from the speakers such that clarity of sound was eliminated. The subtlety of Ms. Croft's and Mr. Sim's vocals were completely negated; subtlety requires restraint and speaker-distorting bass eliminates any chance of whispery vocals. It's as if the clown engineer who had set up the first act's performance was allowed to fool around with the simple and clear sound of the XX's. A miracle happened about half-way through the show. Either someone knocked off the sound engineer or he came to the realization of the criminal act he was committing with this band. The screechy bass was cleared up and we were allowed to hear the quiet interplay of the two vocalists.

As with the album, the set started out with "Intro", a short song anyone who watched the Vancouver Olympics is familiar with (Apollo Ohno’s AT&T spot). Most of the songs (if not all.. I lost count) from the CD were covered and half were fabulous thanks to the corrected sound. Shelter and Stars were especially memorable with the minimalist lighting and the give and take vocal exchanges of Ms. Croft and Mr. Sim.

Now, if only the first half had been allowed to play out with those setting...what a thoroughly enjoyable performance that would have been.

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A good sound man is hard to find, it seems. Either that, or the band is still figuring out how to assert itself when it comes to settings. I talked to one guy who'd worked at the (then) O'Keefe Centre in Toronto during the 89s and 90s, and he'd admitted that Leonard Cohen had been something of a revelation. "When the band performed a sound-check, Cohen came back and told me to turn down this, that -- pretty much everything, really. It turned out to be the best sounding concert I'd done."

The venue you describe sounds like it was a nearly perfect fit for the act. A nephew caught The xx in Hamilton. I'll have to get his post-show thoughts when I see him this weekend.
It would be interesting to hear the opinion of a younger set of ears....and specifically what his thoughts are on the sound setting he experienced.
The story you relate is an interesting one, from both perspectives. The fact that Cohen was so involved in what his output would sound lke and the fact that the sound guy DID change the settings based on his suggestions. Now, granted, Mr. Cohen had a lot of cache so the sound guy couldn't be all "It's my job; I know what I'm doing", but it was interesting to hear him relate that story to you; some guys may have felt unable to admit they may not have had the right touch.
...and as far as your reference to the band still trying to "figure out how to assert itself when it comes to settings"? Well, maybe right again, WP.
Truly, The XX's were one of the most polite bands I'd ever seem perform. Perhaps they needed a PITA to make their point....
HEY! That could be me!? Where do I sign up?
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