The xx, Austra House of Blues February 9, 2013
For a band that revels in bringing icy silence to post-punk, it could be relatively easy for The xx to lose all of that so-called "negative space" when playing to a cavernous venue packed to the gills with Houston concertgoers who love to talk.
The very idea of negative space is something of a fetish property in certain artistic circles. Photographers, artists and graphic designers have long extolled its virtues, asserting that the lack of objects in a given frame of reference or uncluttered field provides the eye a resting place that isn't necessarily the primary object.
However, even though music critics have employed such phraseology since the days of Philip Glass and his progeny, it seems that you can't read a write-up about The xx without someone talking about how the intimate minimalism of the band's music can be best described as an exercise in that negative space.
And while such terminology can be correct on the surface, it can also become a crutch when you don't have anything else to say about the music. Case in point: I've enjoyed this trio's music since the release of its debut self-titled LP in 2009, but after seeing two different performances of those songs at SXSW 2010, I remained dubious as to how the band could effectively recreate the subtle nuances of its music in any sort of large venue.
Thus, I was pleasantly shocked when my fears about Saturday's show at House of Blues were all for naught, as The xx and Austra amply filled up the necessary sonic spaces and played before a mostly attentive and appreciative audience. With The xx, the crowd respected the quiet moments inherent to the band's style, while Austra featured a strong New Wave-fueled sound that everyone seemed to really dig.
I was personally struck how the powerful vocals of Austra's Katie Stelmanis paired well with the danceable, tribal-inspired rhythms created by her bandmates. Over the course of eight songs, the group presented Houston with fun, shiny pop music that combined Annie Lennox and Florence Welch with superb aplomb and disco undertones.
But let's be honest -- this was a sold-out show because people wanted to see The xx play its first-ever show in Houston as it tours its critically acclaimed sophomore release, Coexist. And the band did not disappoint.
Hell, even my Dream Theater-loving brother whom I cajoled into attending with me was impressed with how effortlessly and seamlessly the band filled up the House of Blues. He was also suitably fascinated by the economy of motion employed by Jamie xx as he manipulated his banks of MPC's, synths, and other noisemakers by hand, rather than relying on pre-programmed swaths of sound.
At the front of the stage, it was readily apparent that Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim have become supremely comfortable playing before large audiences. As opposed to March 2010, when they nervously stood onstage and recreated a few songs note-for-note from the record, the two singers were having obvious fun performing their severely serious music. Specifically, the music took on this Bauhaus-meets-Burial feel whenever the lanky Sim prowled center stage with his bass.
Nevertheless, the crowd took on its most rapturous quality when Croft's breathy alto whispered out the words to standout cuts like "Angels," "Chained," "VCR," and "Shelter"; the crowd gave her space to sing the verses before joining her on the choruses. Other favorite selections from the evening include "Infinity" (which closed out the main portion of the band's set), "Stars" (which brought the three-song encore to a close), "Fiction," and "Reunion."
On the whole, the Houston crowd mostly behaved itself, clapping at the end of songs, singing along with the big singles, dancing a bit when the band laid down a nice groove (though everyone was really packed in tightly), and remaining just quiet enough when The xx dropped its levels to create its preferred ambience.
I would also be remiss if I didn't applaud the band for learning how to tweak, expand, and recreate its sound when needed, as opposed to performing a dry take that could have been culled right off the record. I've always felt that one of the hallmarks of a talented band is when it can find new, fresh ways to reinterpret its own material for live shows.
Personal Bias: I really like this band, though I'm even more partial to all of the great Jamie xx DJ sets I've downloaded over the past couple of years.
The Crowd: A packed house of twenty- and thirtysomethings. Some folks were present because it was "the" trendy show to attend that weekend, others were there because the band has become trendy and they wanted to figure out the appeal, while still more were there because they actually enjoyed the music.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Somebody brought the good weed tonight!"
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Random Notebook Dump: Jamie xx took control of the show at key times in the middle third of the set, as he introduced rich samples of the sort of "future bass" and post-dubstep he creates when performing as a solo DJ. Doing so brought this wonderful New Order quality to the band's inherent Joy Division aesthetic.