The xx w/ Sampha @ The Eagles Ballroom
Stardom doesn't come naturally for The xx. The band certainly never imagined themselves playing to roaring, sold-out crowds when they were recording their soft-spoken 2009 self-titled debut, an album so love-sick that it didn’t seem to realize how cutting edge it was. At the time that record seemed far too intimate to be a blockbuster—guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim sang to each other like bashful teens afraid their parents might overhear their overtures from the next room—yet in the years that followed its fusion of hauntingly dreamy indie-rock and electronica proved massively influential, not only in indie rock, which shortly after began flocking to R&B for creative inspiration, but also in the highest echelons of rap and pop. Drake’s great artistic breakthrough came after an xx binge, and commercial monoliths The Chainsmokers have openly pillaged the group’s playbook, albeit while dialing up the wattage with the subtlety of a Fast and Furious movie.
For their 2012 album Coexist, The xx offered more of the same, to diminishing returns, but it was only on this year’s I See You that the trio fully embraced their stature, stepping up to fill the market they helped create for festival-ready, indie-adjacent EDM. It’s flashy in ways their previous records never allowed themselves to be, leaning more than ever on producer Jamie xx’s dynamic beat injections and drawing lessons from his outside solo success, yet impressively it never loses the sense of romance and vulnerability that’s always set the band apart from their intimidators. These songs may seem cocky on the surface, but they’re still shy at the core.
The group demonstrated how comfortable they’ve become in the spotlight Saturday night for a very receptive sold-out crowd at the Eagles Ballroom. With their trim black clothes and sharp haircuts, Croft and Sim no longer look like sheepish kids but well-styled stars, and they brought a sense of confidence even to their many numbers about anxiety (one of which, “Performance,” Croft sang in a solo spotlight). Accompanying his bandmates from an elevated platform above, Jamie xx alternated between keyboards, drums and beat pads, and with him as the night’s de facto musical director, everything about their music seemed heightened: The EDM parts were clubbier, the anthemic parts more U2-y. Every break, pause and solo was calculated for maximum impact and applause.
The producer seemed to relish his newfound prominence, and jumped at the chance to put a little extra spin on some tracks. He pumped up “Shelter,” a typically naked number from the group’s debut, with a dramatic ’80s-inspired techno beat, and for the night’s encore spun “On Hold” into a massive rave-up, proving he can work a crowd every bit as well as the superstar DJs that have sprung up in his wake.
The xx were joined on the bill by one of the artists their sound helped pave the way for, the velvet-voiced London electronic soul singer Sampha. He’s a more trained, passionate vocalist than either of The xx’s co-leads, but so far doesn’t have a true solo hit to show for all that talent (his highest charting tracks have been two guest features with Drake). That’s an injustice that should be remedied in time: Watching him croon away in front of his backing band (a drummer, a keyboardist and a beat-pad guy) and a thoughtful light show, it seemed like more a matter of when than if. Like the headliners he warmed the stage for, Sampha’s making the kind of music that seems to be everywhere right now, but doing so with color and texture that’s all his own.