Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bring on the Night

It was a long time coming.

Ever since I put The XX on my "best of" list in 2009, I had been hoping to see them.

When tickets went on sale, I wasted no time in walking down to the National to get mine, unlike some XX-loving friends I could mention who waited until a couple days ago and then panicked to discover the show was sold out (R.J., I'm looking at you).

For maximum enjoyment, I planned to go to the show with someone who had been introduced to the XX by yours truly.

Our first stop was 821 Cafe for black bean nachos in a mobbed dining room with a server who was clearly in the weeds.

The nachos were more than just sustenance: they were a tradition since we'd shared them together before we'd gone to see Rodrigo y Gabriela at the National a few years back.

He'd forgotten how large the serving was, but I hadn't and we both finished feeling quite replete.

But the chalkboard had one lone dessert, we had a half hour until show time and we were barely a mile away.

The piece of mint chocolate cake was enormous, with a minty green icing that was neither overly sweet nor overly minty.

In fact, my companion noted, "It's like the toothpaste you're allowed to eat."

We wolfed down the cake mainly because a large contingent of motorcyclists had come in and appropriated three tables and now people were waiting for our chairs.

Arriving at The National, we found a surprisingly big crowd already in place just before 8:00.

There were several things I could say about the crowd - they were punctual, they were probably devoted fans, they were infrequent concert-goers- but the main thing I could observe was that they were young.

Young as in underage, a fact I gleaned from the abundance of right hands marked with a big, black X to signify, "Don't sell this person a drink."

It reminded me of a conversation I'd had last week at the Yo la Tengo show with a friend who works at the National.

He'd chided me for not being in for so long, but I reminded him that The National isn't booking much of my kind of music lately.

"You know why?" he asked. "Indie crowds don't drink. Blues and rock bands, they drink."

Based on what I saw tonight, indie crowds don't drink because legally they aren't allowed to.

It doesn't bode well for me spending more time at The National, sadly.

Up first was Austra and, as my companion noted, "They've got no problem referencing the '80s."

And this is a bad thing, why?

Lead singer Katie had a waist-length blond ponytail, the voice of an opera singer and a dramatic singing style that involved hand gestures and dance-like moves.

Her keyboard playing required spidery hand gestures and dramatic rolls of her spine.

"Hello, we're Austra from Toronto," she said by way of introduction. "It's our first time playing here. It's very beautiful."

The light show for their set was impressive for an opening act.

After one song, the stage went black with just two pink spotlights and Katie walked across it, saying, "I don't think it's ever been this dark on stage. I like it. Thank you, lighting!"

The keyboardist got the award for most awesome ensemble in a white track suit with notes and (was it?) treble clefs across the shoulders and down the pants legs.

He and the bass player spent their set dancing in place to the variety of songs the band played, everything from synth-based pop to Kate Bush-like dirges.

It had been an impressive set given Katie's lungs, the spot-on drumming of the female drummer and the sheer uniqueness of the breadth of their sound.

For the record, I'd happily see them again.

While The XX got set up, I scanned the crowd, spotting the Johnny-come-lately friend who'd apparently scored a last-minuet ticket, but other than him, I didn't see any familiar faces other than the musician friend who worked the bar and served me.

I have to assume I don't have many friends as passionate about minimalist dream pop as I am.

The band came out and immediately launched into "Angels," thereby demonstrating to everyone in the room that both singers Oliver and Romy had every bit of the voices heard on the albums.

"That Jamie is a good looking guy," my straight friend observed. He was that.

Romy was all shoulder pads and short hair and her distinctive hushed voice and spare guitar played off Oliver's bass and deeper-than-the record voice, as they played and sang facing each other and moving in concert.

"It's very special to be here," Oliver announced. "It's not just our first time in Richmond, it's our first time in Virginia."

RVA, represent.

And, truthfully, we could have represented better.

While the crowd did tone down the talking during songs, there was far too much screaming and mid-song clapping when it would have been more respectful to shut up and let such a quiet band be heard.

My guess is that a lot of the kids in the room were new to the concert experience and don't know any better.

I should teach a class.

One of my favorites came third, "Fiction," with its Interpol-light guitar bit and Oliver's heart-tugging vocal.

"Crystallized," from the debut album got slowed down to the point that it confused the kids who continued to attempt to sing the "I, yi, yi" parts at the album's tempo instead of what the band was doing.

Personally, I thought it was terrific of them to change things up, both for their sake as well as ours.

"We wrote a new version of this song for this tour," Oliver said by way of introducing "Chained," which benefited from different rhythm than the original.

"Reunion" got the full steel drum treatment (so cool) and segued fluidly into "Sunset," just as it does on the album while "Swept Away" was sped up and ended abruptly.

The award for song that brought out the most cameras was "VCR," probably because it was the entry point song-wise for many people when they first discovered the XX.

All too soon, the set ended and they walked off stage.

When they returned, it was for the most exquisite moment of the show.

They began playing "Intro," the song that leads off their debut album and for those of us who begin with albums and not songs, the first thing we ever heard of The XX.

Call it a slow burn.

Without vocals, it allows the listener to get immersed in the furtive-sounding, nuanced chillwave that is The XX.

While earlier there had been a light show, complete with smoke and pulsing beams, for this it was just a black backdrop with a giant white "X," like on the first album.

The sound of the bass drum caused the curtain to move.

"Thanks Richmond, for being such a wonderful audience," Oliver said before playing "Stars" and abandoning us to the real world.

After a sensual set of mood music with Jamie doing multiple things at once on percussion, Romy's lush guitar and sexy singing and Oliver's killer vocals and bass, I felt lulled into a world where people whisper their feelings and it's always nighttime.

Minimal music, but never minimal feelings.

Fiction, when we're not together
Mistaken for a vision, something of my own creation
Come real love, why do I refuse you?
Cause if my fear's right, I risk to lose you
And if I just might wake up alone
Bring on the night

It was worth every bit of the three-year plus wait to hear them live.

Walking out the sold-out crowd moved slowly, as if reluctant to go home after the transcendent experience.

Beside me in the massive pack of humanity waiting to escape, a guy spoke to the girl with him, saying, "I was just reading an article about the psychology of stampedes. This is scary."

Don't worry, son. We'll cover the logistics of exiting the venue when you come to my class on how to go to a show.

Rule #1: Leave your camera at home and experience the entire thing first hand and not through the tiny screen on your phone.

That way your memories will seem less like fiction.


  1. Great review, Karen. Wish I could have gone to the show. Don't know if you saw this recent article on the Rolling Stone website. Should give you a few topics for your concert-going class!

  2. Thanks for the class fodder, Tony. I have so much to teach so many!

  3. Yo La Tengo played at the National?? I knew they were in Charlottesville. When did this happen? How did I not know? What difference does it make, since I wouldn't have been able to afford it anyway???

  4. No, they played at the Jefferson. I had the conversation about the National at Yo la Tengo.