Such is the growing popularity of The XX that their show in Brighton had already been upgraded from The Freebutt to the slightly larger Audio. With a capacity crowd in attendance there’s more than just suggestion that the wave they are currently riding could have taken them right down to Brighton’s seafront to the even bigger Concorde, where only a month or two ago they were the support act to Vampire Weekend (review here) It is no surprise that next time the band play Brighton in March 2010 they will be headlining the six hundred and fifty capacity Komedia.
Before the XX play, on a stage decorated with owl figurines, illuminated globes and lanterns, Brighton’s own Esben and the Witch entertain. This group seem to be the perennial support act in Brighton at the moment, but a billing with The XX is probably the bands most suited yet, in terms of an affiliated sound. Esben and the Witch are kindred spirits through their use of haunting female vocals, electronic drum patterns and moody soundscapes. They are however not as instantly loveable, their music being based less around melody. Instead Esben and the Witch concern themselves more with the dynamic of atmospherics, textures and clicking rhythms. Lead singer Rachel wears a Robert Smith Lullaby t shirt - and certainly Pornography and Disintegration era Cure seem to be reference points in their music, as is the possibility of an undead Portishead. It’s experimental music that is meticulously and selectively put together, the stuff of electric haunted houses and desolate landscapes. There are momentary blasts of Mogwai-esque dirty noise and fragile quiet moments that suffer from unwanted feedback interruptions, but overall the band provide more than enough justification for what they do. All three members of the group seem to immerse themselves fully into their sound, their guitarist almost violently so, and at the end he attempts to beat the life out of the single drum on stage before exiting out the back.
If there was a competition for cool, The XX would win hands down. They display a mix of studied intensity combined with a subtle and gentle nature that pushes them just to the periphery of distantness. With the whole band dressed in black, and plenty of jewellery chains on display, there’s a hint of urban goth to their self image. There is however something with this band that demonstrates that they have much more than just a fashion tag. There are the timid sweet thank you’s to the audience, the small smiles between vocalists Oliver (pictured) and Romy, the way their electronic drum pad player puts one hand in his pocket whilst playing - probably the most un rock n roll gesture ever, and of course let’s not forget the beautiful minimalist pop music that is played note perfectly. These are all reasons why The XX offer more, often through less, and achieve an unexpected coolness.
The cool factor is magnified by the fact that The XX are not the kind of band that are going to participate in high jinx tomfoolery, jumping or jiving around on stage. They line up at the front as a four piece; bordered by two glowing white X’s and deliver every song with a quiet confidence, including their now familiar cover of Teardrops by Womack and Womack. It’s songs such as VCR with its hypnotic exacting Cure (yes that band again) like guitar, and Shelter where Romy’s soulful downbeat deadpan voice ushers “Can I make it better, with the lights turned on,” that make you forget that you could just sit at home and listen to the album - such is the lack of the bands showmanship. It feels that standing in this virtually motionless crowd is something special, that you are watching songs being played that have depth - tunes that will last longer than whatever transient time period the bands coolness lasts for.
As the set comes to an end Oliver thanks Esben and the Witch for supporting, admitting that his band are “A little bit in love with them,” and thanks the audience for coming to watch their first ever headline tour. The applause is significant and the whole band look just a little bit bewildered at it. After they finish the call for an encore is long, but one is not forthcoming. Either The XX are humble enough to think they have not earned the right yet, or are just too composed for such gig clichés, but either way this was an impressive performance deserving of a return to the stage.
How the band will deal with larger venues remains to be seen. It may be that some other visual presence is needed in bigger halls where sometimes even the music alone isn’t enough. But for now the music was all that was needed.