The xx Trades Arenas for Intimacy in a Hot-Ticket NYC Showcase: Concert Review

The XX Performing at Park Avenue Armory - P 2014
Stephanie Berger

The XX Performing at Park Avenue Armory - P 2014

An extraordinary staging for 80 lucky fans suits the band's music perfectly.

An extraordinary staging for 80 lucky fans suits the band's music perfectly.

NEW YORK — Two years ago, New York City's music lovers were at each others' throats trying to score tickets to see Kraftwerk play the Museum of Modern Art, where eight shows admitting just 450 listeners each sold out immediately.

Fans of the xx should have it so easy.

For the group's residency at the Park Avenue Armory, another arts venue rarely associated with rock shows, tickets were far scarcer than the building's size could have allowed: Only 40 were sold to each concert, with two or three performances scheduled each night between March 19 and 29. The tickets were gone before the series was even announced to the press, with die-hard fans (and many Armory members who're accustomed to getting early-bird tickets) wondering how they missed out.

On Thursday night, some of the band's followers were caught trying to sneak into the Armory by climbing a fire escape; others were victims of a con artist who sold them counterfeit tickets online. Not every scheme ended in tears, though: One young devotee from Mexico refused to be excluded, and got into the show by pursuing a stalker-ish strategy — the specifics of which can't be revealed here — that might be a first in the annals of rock fandom.

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Those who got into the building were routed through its bowels, corralled in a shabby downstairs storage room to await admission. The group was roughly twice as large as the official 40-person-max figure, and glancing around the room — where Bjork, Antony Hegarty, and other familiar faces sat among the hip and/or lucky civilians — it seemed obvious that the guest list had swelled with VIPs who simply could not be turned away.

An audience of 80 turned out to be just about ideal once attendees were led through a cloth tunnel to a box built around the tiny stage: People stood in a single-file square, each getting an unobstructed view of the sunken platform where the band awaited them. Jamie Smith (aka Jamie XX) stood motionless within a bank of electronic and percussion instruments while Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim paced silently, making no eye contact with fans who were close enough to reach out and shake hands. The silence was contagious; throughout the 50-minute set, songs ended without applause and listeners were as silently attentive as observers at a sacred rite. Except for Sim's two-word "thank you" at the show's end, the band matched their wordlessness.

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This setting, close enough to touch, but separated by silence, could hardly have been more fitting for a band whose music has always relied on a peculiar tension between emotional intimacy and coldly perfectionist production. Here, the careful orchestration extended to the physical world. The stage was enclosed by four walls and an extremely low ceiling, all made of semi-opaque scrim that sometimes filled up with abstract film projections. But the room changed throughout, steering viewers through an expanding sense of the space they were in. First the ceiling rose, making the room twice as high and eliminating the feeling of being under a blanket with the three musicians. Then, midway through "Shelter," the walls dropped so silently during a blackout that, when a new set of lights came back on, the effect seemed at first like a James Turrell-style sensory trick. Only in the last song or two did the lighting shift so that one saw the vast drill hall, a place where troops practiced formations a century and a half ago, that enclosed this little stage.

The sound was as good as any concertgoer could ask for, and the group's performance matched it, straying from album arrangements mainly in the impulse to slow things down slightly: In the set-opening "Angles," for instance, Croft put enough space between the words in her refrain — "They would be/As in love with you as I am" — to make the line threaten to break under the weight of longing. While Smith attended to his electronics surreptitiously, Sim stalked around the tiled square restively, sometimes encroaching on and confronting Croft's personal space and sometimes marking out his own territory. As the most physically expressive person in the room — the audience seemingly didn't feel it would be appropriate to dance — it was difficult not to search his caged-animal movements for signs of discomfort with the extraordinary setting he and his colleagues had constructed.

That closing "thank you" was greeted by an ovation that, with fewer than a hundred pairs of hands trying to fill 55,000 square feet, was oddly underwhelming. As the musicians stood in place after the applause died out, listeners awkwardly stepped away from the square, trickling out to sit in the Armory's ornately decorated anterooms and quietly ask each other if they'd ever seen so much theatrical energy expended on so few.

Set list:

Shelter/Swept Away