I try to write these in short order after seeing the show, but this one took a little bit longer to get going. Several reasons for this…
I stayed in a $40 hotel in Rochester after the show. You might imagine the sort of room you can get for $40 on a Friday night; I will tell you that whatever image you’ve conjured up in your mind, take it down a notch or two. I rolled in about 2 a.m., went to the front desk to “announce” I was there (I say “announce” because I had to shout over the TV, which had the episode of Family Guy on Adult Swim cranked up to 11), and waited for the clerk (fresh from his role as a zombie on The Walking Dead, if one can judge a book by its cover) to stop talking about his taxidermy habit and offering to have dinner with me in his office before I could just go to my room and shower. (Cue the Bernard Herrmann music.) Eventually I got to my room and crashed for a few hours before hitting the road at 7 a.m.
I left Rochester early not only because I was staying at the Bates Motel, but because I needed to get back to my old stomping grounds to attend a benefit for my good friend Aaron. It was a great day, not only because I was able to see a bunch of good friends, but also to see how well Aaron is doing. Much like Wu-Tang Clan, Guillain-Barre Syndrome ain’t nothin’ to fuck wit’, yet Aaron is already kicking its ass just months after the diagnosis (and that’s with an extended, scary stay in ICU in the interim). A lot of people came out and a good amount of dough was raised for my friend and his family, and I walked away from the live auction portion of the festivities with a gift for Tracy: a hot air balloon ride for two, complete with some bubbly to drink while in the air. Thankfully my dad didn’t follow through with his threat to run up the bid on me…
I also didn’t want to write my thoughts about the show immediately afterward for fear that I would knee-jerk my way through it, saying things like “This is without a doubt the best show I’ve ever seen in my life” or “You know, Romy actually is kinda cute” or anything else filled with hyperbole.
So here I am, nearly 48 hours after the final notes of “Stars” had run their course, and I’m left thinking…
“This is without a doubt the best show I’ve ever seen in my life.”
It would be more accurate to say “This is arguably the best show I’ve ever seen in my life,” because I’ve seen some pretty cool shows, especially lately. M83 at the Pageant earlier this year was killer; Portishead in Chicago last year is the one that might still hold the throne even after this xx spectacle. And there’s the first time I saw Explosions in the Sky, which was pretty special; The Cure on the 2000 Dream Tour was epic, too, going nearly three hours and playing a ton of stuff off Pornography.
But this…this was amazing.
Perhaps more than anything else, consider the nature of the xx’s music. The personal feel, the minimal instrumentation that allows the emotion of the music to expand exponentially. The show was played at First Avenue, which isn’t exactly the largest venue in the world. Also consider that I was able to be right up front, along the rail just in front of Oliver Sim, adding to the intimacy of the moment.
And all my best-laid plans for the show came together. I was flying solo (or with all my friends, right?!) for this one, so I decided I was going to nerd out, drive up to the Cities early, and be the first person in line outside First Ave. I would go in, grab a pint of something from the bar, and then park in front of the stage.
Two other dudes had the same plan, so I was third in line when I got there. The line got longer and longer during the ensuing hour between my arrival and when doors opened, and I soon was bumped to fourth in line when the second guy in line was joined by his daughter. She was wearing red pants and a sweet jacket, which prompted a text message exchange between me and Todd (who was in Florida) in which we reminisced about the girl with red pants and cool jacket at the Gardens & Villa show in Iowa City during last spring’s Mission Creek Festival.* It must be the uniform of choice for cool music girls everywhere. The xx fan girl later asked her dad if she could get a tattoo when she turned 16, but only “if it means something to her.” (He said no.)
(* – Gardens & Villa and the Girl with the Red Pants were the only things we enjoyed about our night out at Mission Creek—Dirty Beaches and The War on Drugs were complete letdowns—so we didn’t write a “From the MoSS Pit?” entry. We should have, though. The funny thing: we were behind Girl with the Red Pants the entire show, so we were all under the impression that no one could rock red pants the way she did AND have it all put together from the front as well. When she finally turned around…boy, were we wrong. Todd’s better half agrees with this sentiment, by the way.)
Some people walked by and glanced at the poster announcing tonight’s lineup. The three college kids behind me in line joined me for a laugh when a passerby uttered to his friend, “Who’s playing—oh, Double X.” This name-bungling was one-upped by a panhandler who, after being rejected in his quest for spare change, asked the guys in front of me, “Who’s playing?” One of them responded, to which the panhandler said, “Who? Ex-Lax?” A shitty thing to say, to be sure. (Ha!)
Soon enough it was time to go in. I quickly got my pint and grabbed my spot at the rail. Two very nice women, April and Jessica, stood next to me (young Red Pants and her dad also landed on the rail, on the other side of A&J). The floor quickly filled up. Not far from me, I noticed a guy in a Flogging Molly shirt who had been pacing around outside First Avenue begging to buy anyone’s extra tickets. At one point his ladyfriend smelled a clove cigar that was being smoked by someone in line, and she offered to buy one of those. Flogging Molly Shirt comes around the corner and says, “I’m trying to find us tickets, and you’re buying cigarettes!” I later heard that he bought two tickets for $120 apiece; face value with fees was $38, and that included a legal digital download of the Coexist album. (But still a shrewd purchase, if you ask me.)
You know what else ruled about this show? It started 30 minutes EARLY. 2:54 took the stage at 8:30 even though the show was billed as starting at 9:00. And they were great. I thought they sounded a little heavier live than what you get from their recorded material, but that’s not a criticism. (Todd included them on our May mixtape, if you want to hear a sample.) The band was well received, and they kept things moving along by playing an economical six-song set.
John Talabot was next. I like his music just fine, but knob tweaking punctuated by the occasional series of crash-cymbal pounding isn’t the most thrilling equation for live music. It was the exact kind of show I feared I might get with M83, to be honest; where M83 succeeds by playing a lot of it live, Talabot and his button-pushing sidekick just sort of stood there. Frankly, the xx could have worked out a deal with Talabot where they said, “Look, how about we just play your music during the stage transition from 2:54 to our set?” and it would have been just as valuable. I will listen to John Talabot again this year, I’m sure, so I’m not ripping on the music (for the most part). It just didn’t work for me as a live act.
Talabot’s was a relatively short set as well, and then it was go time.
Sometimes I prefer it when a band sounds ragged live, so I know I’m getting an experience that differs from “just hitting play.” I’d rather bands like the xx don’t sound that way; I want the perfection, and I want the atmosphere they create on the record to be present in this live setting. But I don’t want an exact carbon copy of the album, either. Can you run through the material as if it’s a perfect take, but not have it sound exactly like the songs I’ve played ad infinitum?
The xx can do that.
Sure, the minimalism of the music allows for better odds in terms of solid reproduction of the sound. But they sounded great, both in voice and in instrument. And Jamie xx is a man on a mission behind his setup, pounding out beats on pads or grabbing drumsticks to beat away on real drums or plinking away at piano work.
To my ears, Coexist just gets better with each listen, and the new songs sounded fantastic here. Scroll back up to watch the opener, “Angels,” and take a look at “Sunset” below.
I really liked the way they reworked a couple of the old songs, particularly “Crystalised”:
And they incorporated one of the best songs from the first album (“Shelter”) within one of my favorite songs on the second album (“Swept Away”) and pulled it off seamlessly.
They played every song from xx, and nearly all of Coexist. The encore was a three-song blast of “Intro,” “Tides,” and “Stars,” and after my chest was pummeled by the last few blasts of bass toward the end of “Stars,” my heart was full.