Is it almost October already? Hard to believe that yet again, we find ourselves at the end of another season at the Hollywood Bowl. Like each year before, this year was filled with impressive highlights. M83, Vampire Weekend, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Rodrigo y Gabriela all powerfully delivered stellar headlining sets, and for the final night in this year’s season, the minimalist trio The xx were the final act. Like M83 last week, this was easily the single biggest show of the band’s career. Both vocalists Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim said as much numerous times throughout the show, indicating the enormity of the experience was not lost on them. Seventeen thousand strong cheered and shouted for the world’s most exciting quiet band, and it was a well deserved fanfare for a band that took everyone—including this publication—a few year’s back by surprise and became a breakout star.
Holding down the opening slot was Canadian electro pop act Austra. You might not be terribly aware of Austra yet if you’re not glued to music press, but in time, you will be. Tonight a four-piece band, the group fronted by Katie Stelmanis had just about 25 minutes to impress a massive crowd still filing in from the parking lot. The good news is the band lives up to their reputation live nicely, playing an atmospheric blend of synths and delay-ridden guitars. Like Phantogram who played here exactly one week ago with M83 or a less elastic version of Gang Gang Dance, the band aims more for colorful than bombastic beats with their electronics. Most impressive were their final two numbers “Lose It” and “Hurt Me Now,” the latter of which the closing track from their recent, excellent sophomore album Olympia.
Next up was Chromatics. Chromatics is a band that in the last few years has bubbled up in the indie buzz scene, but if you’ve been with us since the beginning at mxdwn, you’ll remember we covered one of their very first albums Plaster Hounds that was released on the now defunct Gold Standard Laboratories way back in 2004. At the time, this band was nothing but pure, unadulterated noise punk. Let’s just say that much has changed since then. Following that album the entire lineup of the band changed leaving only guitarist Adam Miller as the sole remaining original member. The group has fully eschewed their frenetic noise punk in favor of a more hyper-glossy, electro pop sheen. Similar to Neon Indian, but with less emphasis on epic, intricately programmed synth swirls, Chromatics may have the pulse of the scene firmly in hand, but they lack the weighty brilliance of the evening’s headliner (who apparently are huge fans of Chromatics and hand picked them as support for this show). The band relies heavily on sequenced backing tracks and layers in all of their instrumentation on top. It’s hard to scrutinize, but if there’s a competent drummer on stage playing a simple rhythm is it really necessary to have a separate click track running? Couldn’t one, excellent drummer do both? Still, lead singer Ruth Radelet has an appropriately sultry voice, cooing throughout the elongated “I Want Your Love.” The group ended on a simplified electro rendition of Neil Young’s timeless “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”
The xx opened up on the cryptic and hypnotic tones of “Try” with Oliver Sim uttering softly “We bide our time / though the time is fine / Oh to be there, / I could be there / Say you’ll be there,” before Madley-Croft joins in. The crowd is already fully enraptured by this point. The band’s not-so-secret weapon Jamie Smith (or Jamie XX as he is often referred to) is a sonic wizard. He effortlessly shifts between four separate tables worth of electronics, plucking, stabbing and hammering out an enveloping series of brilliant beats and audio color. There’s no doubt about it, Smith is the linchpin in The xx’s sound. His influence and careful, precision framework takes “Crystalised,” “Reunion” and “Sunset” each to thought-provoking heights of alternating, interlocking perfection. Warm dance swirls drop out letting simple squelching beats to rise up to only quietly disappear before epic flourishes rise up like a brief, joyful tsunami and eventually even mutate into a steel drum calypso pitter-patter. Attention all DJs and “keyboard players” in every band, everywhere. In comparison to Jamie Smith’s live production with The xx, you’re lazy. Nothing personal, but this remarkable attention to detail and approaching these devices like different notes on a guitar fret board—or better yet the color palette on an easel—truly makes The xx a special live experience.
Meanwhile, Sim and Madley-Croft take turns romancing the crowd. Sim takes lead on “Missing” while Madley-Croft slows things down even more on “Shelter.” The latter is a strong example of the band’s major lyrical motifs. “I find shelter, in this way / Under cover, hide away / Can you hear, when I say? / I have never felt this way,” coos Madley-Croft. Most of the band’s songs examine embryonic feelings or emotions raw in the decimated aftermath. They don’t ever directly state a realization, or recount a full chronology of events. What they do instead is poetically muse on the genesis of these feelings or deconstruct what they meant. This song also features the night’s most alluring moment, with Sim and Madley-Croft locking eyes a mere foot from each other in complete silence before ending out the song’s refrain, “Maybe I had said something that was wrong / Can I make it better with the lights turned on?” “Infinity” closes out the set proper with the band’s only true crescendo and call-and-response “Give it up / I can’t give it up.”
The group leaves the stage quickly but before the audience has a chance to cheer for an encore the black curtain behind the backdrop parts to reveal a large portion of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Though the orchestra is often used with major bands playing here, this show was announced, sold out and performed without a mention of it, so the crowd is surprised and excited to see this reveal. The band closes out their with the orchestra on “Tides,” “Together” (from The Great Gatsby soundtrack) and “Angels” taking their sonic tapestry to even higher levels of quality, the orchestra punctuating the few moments the trio wouldn’t have already. Consider this a well deserved turning point moment. After many years where few acts found their way to being new giants in the music business, the last handful of years a slew of acts have leaped and bounded to the top of the pile. Count The xx with them as one of the current generation’s few, truly unique voices and sounds that have broken through to the stratosphere.