Acts that play DC9 usually unload their gear from the backs of their own vans and cars, so the sight of a truly rock-and-roll tour bus outside the club on Sunday meant only one thing: “It” band of the moment The XX had rolled into town on a bus befitting their bloghaus buzz.
Since forming in 2005, the XX has gone from West London high-schoolers to underground sensation on both sides of the pond. And while the majority of the 2009 British invasion has tended towards danceable electropop (Little Boots, La Roux, et al), the XX refocus their pop and R&B influences inward, crafting soulful indie rock that is dark and sexual.
The riptide of hype has already swallowed one member, as guitarist/keyboardist Baria Qureshi recently quit the band after an exhausting slate of CMJ showcases. The XX soldier on a three-piece, as her departure has caused the band to improvise and adapt arrangements, without much margin of error.
Opening the night was Jon Hopkins, an electronic music producer whose songs are glitchy and atmospheric, sounding at times like outtakes from a Clint Mansell score, and at others, instrumentals begging for a female vocalist, a la Zero 7 and Frou Frou. The pulsating drums and sweeping synths rang the gamut from dubstep to drum-n-bass, firmly on the “electronic” side of an electronic/dance music Venn diagram. Unfortunately, watching Hopkins manipulate his gear is not particularly captivating. The crests never broke and he seemed to out stay his welcome. However, it was the perfect music for an opener, leaving enough ambience and mystique in the air for the main attraction.
To rousing applause, the XX took the stage. The band’s youth (they’re all 20!) was on display throughout the night, but not in an unpleasant way. The set list stayed relatively close to the record, with a few covers mixed in: their masterful reworkings of the funky club track “Do you mind?” and the Womack & Womack hit “Teardrops,” a song recorded before the band members were born. Oliver Sim (bass and vocals) seemed genuinely excited by the band’s first trip to Washington; his reference of Ben’s Chili Bowl was earnest and unrehearsed. And while they missed their marks or played the wrong notes a few times, it reminded the audience what they are witnessing: gifted songwriters whose talents belie their age and experience.
In front of a display emblazoned with their stark logo, the goth-attired trio worked through twelve of the fifteen songs they have committed to record (their cover of Florence and the Machines “You’ve Got the Love” was sorely missed). The interplay and counterpoint of Sim’s smoky vocals with the breathy ones of guitarist Romy Madley Croft are just as sorrowful and emotive as on record. Jamie Smith, manning a drum machine, samplers, and the occasional live percussion seems to have picked up the slack after Qureshi’s exit, especially when dropping the otherworldly bass sounds of songs like “Fantasy.”
If not immediately engaged, the sold-out crowd was won over by the time Croft plucked the opening riff of the surprisingly danceable single “Crystalised,” and remained enraptured until the call-and-response crescendo that ended the set on “Stars,” a song that finds the band at its most Chris Isaac-like sound. Here’s hoping the band can survive the further strain that is all but assured as more people hear the record. This is the rare next-big-thing that doesn’t rely on gimmicks, parlaying a high Pitchfork score into no more than hipster namedroppings. If they can survive this rough patch intact, I’ll be front and center when they play the 9:30 Club in April, a venue where their tour bus, buzz, and crowd will all be in sync with their talent.