Gig Review: The xx and Wild Beasts @ The Roundhouse, Camden – NOT SO SEXXY
Having spent most of my brief time in London alternating between being hopelessly lost on the tube and bumping into increasingly angry, Marks & Spencer’s suited and coffee-wielding commuters on the street, I was quite looking forward to seeing The xx – having always felt right at home at gigs in my native Belfast, perhaps The Roundhouse would prove to be my sanctuary in London’s overwhelming hustle and bustle, my spiritual gigging home?
Not so. It’s a gig venue, Jim, but not as we know it. After queuing in a queue that equated to the entire population of a small Irish village (by the time the doors were finally opened, the waiting had begun to form their own, rudimentary civilisation, constructing small huts out of Chuck Berry glasses, kindling fires from Pavement vinyl and the likes) a lady with an angular haircut drawled ‘Anyone on guest list?’
Warily, I came forward. In Belfast, ‘guest list’ is a dirty word, sure to draw a bevy of disgruntled looks from bouncers and staff, convinced you’re trying to swindle your way out of paying for a ticket: ‘You’re on the WHAT? The WHAT?!’
Not in London, man. I was ushered over to a Special Queue, which, with the added bonus of making me nearly wet myself with excitement, also moved a heck of a lot faster than the latter. Standing in a group with these edgy media types, faces all lit up by the lights of their iphones, I felt distinctly out of place. I don’t own an iphone. I don’t even have a bloody mobile. Could I ever fit into this journalistic Mecca?
I finally reached the famed halls of The Roundhouse, which to me appeared to be a cross between Hogwarts and the set of The Mighty Boosh, only to hear Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beast’s spine-tingling falsetto ringing out into the reception. Startlingly, I seemed to be the only reviewer who cared that the support had already started. Surely it’s bad form to review a band without even bothering to watch half of their set?
Those foolish journos should’ve dashed down to their seats instead of mulling in the bar, because Wild Beast’s set was a triumph. The majority of ‘Two Dancers’ smoothly underwent the transition to on-record painfully polite, star-spangled slices of overwhelmingly delicate indie to the kind of revving, stadium-flooding, fizzing rock that Win Butler would balk at, all icy piano chords and nuclear-powered stratums of guitars, like layers and layers of icing on a particularly delicious cake.
While I’m not going to pretend that Hayden’s vocal acrobatics are going to be everyone’s cup of tea, they are, at the very least, insanely compelling – only a few tracks in and it’s apparent that Wild Beasts aren’t taking themselves entirely seriously – forget Win Butler’s faux-political preening, Wild Beasts are indie rock majesty with a devilish chuckle. Hayden seems to be courting an entirely original persona – he’s half foppish Victorian Gentleman, all Dorian Gray-esque charms and sexual ambiguity, and half castrated choir-boy, cheekily peeking up the ladies’ skirts while the priest has his back turned. And at their fizzing best, Wild Beasts are transcendent – like on the swooning ‘Fun Powder Plot’ (already amazing due to that excellent punnage), which finds Hayden cawing ‘This is a booty call, my boot up your arse-hole, this is a Freudian slip, my slipper in your bits’ like a demented, horny bird of prey.
Oddly enough, the band’s earnest, between-song banter hardly alludes to the dark undercurrent throbbing behind the laciness of Wild Beast’s tracks, but perhaps this makes them all the more intriguing – this split-personality element makes them seem less like lecherous FHM-subscribers, the pests that sneak up behind you in dark alleys, grab your hips and growl ‘Cor, nice tits, love!’, and more like lissome, dashingly artistic young men, Wildean advocates of hedonism, endlessly teetering on the precipice of corruption. It’s easy to see why Wild Beasts are capable of igniting such journalistic lust – in an era where beer-stained lad-rock reigns supreme, Wild Beasts make pretention – that much-mocked journo staple – seem not only relevant but desperately fashionable. In Wild Beast’s world, decadence rules supreme. It’s not so much a starter set, as it is a medieval banquet, stuffed peacock, pudding, cheese board and all. How will The xx and their draughty sparseness ever follow this up?
The xx have finally bobbed to the surface – once the very essence of eyeliner-clad London mystique, a veritable tsunami of media fawning – culminating in an unlikely NME cover shoot, putting The xx in the illustrious company of Oasis, Kasabian, The Drums, The Drums (again) and *cough* Gerard Way. Slowly but surely, The xx are going from spectral electronic superstars to the kind of faceless, landfill indie bands, so often found in the line-ups of laddish, beery excuses for festivals, a parade of ‘the’s… The Courteeners, The Cribs, The Libertines, The Horrors, The Maccabees, The View, The Enemy, The Kooks, The xx. Fits, doesn’t it? I loved The xx’s debut with a burning passion matched only by the first time I heard Pavement, so it’s with a certain amount of trepidation I await The xx’s entrance. Maybe all that media attention has addled the xx’s poor little braniums? Perhaps, over-night, they’ve morphed into gurning, faux-indie idiots? Maybe Romy will bound onto the stage in a Nash-esque floral monstrosity, drawling to the crowd ‘D’you like it? It’s vintaaage!’ before bashing away on a toy keyboard decorated with toadstools and cups of tea? Maybe Oliver will lollop onto the stage in Chuck Berry specs, a spliff scissored between his fingers, and perform lo-fi versions of The xx’s hits on a battered second-hand guitar? And Dear God, please don’t let them haul Florence onto the stage with them. Anything but bloody Florence.
And so they come on, clad as always in the most punishing of blacks, despite the crashing 32 degree weather, looking as gloomy and as sulky and as fiercely and as refreshingly unfashionable as always. They launch into ‘Intro’ – an instrumental track, and amazingly enough, the crowd actually sung along, hundreds of people muttering along to the lubricious swell of the chords like the bloody singing mice from Bagpuss. It’s an oddly emotional display of The xx fan base’s commitment, and one that got me a bit teary, I’m unashamed to admit.
The next few tracks, however – ‘Crystallised’, ‘Islands’ and ‘Heart Skipped A Beat’ – aren’t quite as stirring. I hate to say it, but there’s not much difference between The xx live and The xx on record – albeit the bass is a little boomier, the vocals are a bit muffled and there’s some interesting lights wizardry going on. You’d forgive The xx for doing away with the whole ‘properly playing live’ rubbish, and reduce their live show to miming, looking a bit sulky and poncing around with guitars.
Actually, speaking of lights, The xx have a rather, erm, interesting stage set-up – I’m sure all those neon x’s and that sexy, dark pink floodlight is meant to be enigmatic and iconic, but the overall effect is that The xx are performing in a less than salubrious strip joint – you half expect Oliver and Romy to rip off their black anoraks to reveal leopard-print thongs, grinding up against the neon letters and inviting up various audience members to stick fivers into their waistbands.
But, unsurprisingly enough, that doesn’t happen, and the band trundle through ‘Shelter’ and ‘VCR’ with a distinct lack of panache , as though Steve Jobs has shackled them to their guitars and is currently kicking them in the shins, hissing ‘Look more aloof! Look more aloof, dammit!’ into their ears.
Steve Jobs protestations weren’t for nowt – The xx look aloof, so bloody aloof that when Oliver sheepishly mutters something about being ‘So happy to be here’ it’s as shocking as Dracula inviting you into his sitting room and offering you a cup of tea and a slice of carrot cake, cos he’s vegetarian now, honest.
A surprising set highlight, however, is Oliver’s excellent rendering of ‘Fantasy’ – a track I’ve always thought a bit dull and pointless on record was transformed into a great, hulking, sinister thing of beauty as Oliver prances and preens, lit up by the strobe lights, his quiff flopping wildly as though he’s performing some intricate shamanistic ritual. It’s genuinely unsettling, and leaves the crowd in a state of shock, unsure of whether to clap or not.
Another highlight was The xx’s achingly pretty cover of Kyla’s R&B hit ‘Do You Mind’, which despite being wildly incongruous to The xx’s po-facedness, is distinctly irony-free, Oliver and Romy cooing ‘Do you mind if I take you home tonight?’ as though it were the most exquisite Shakespearean sonnet ever committed to paper.
And after an actually-quite-good version of ‘Infinity’, where the twanging guitar chords rumbled around The Roundhouse, making the track half sexy electro-pop, half spaghetti western, and an underwhelming (but glittery) encore of ‘Stars’, the band are finally finished, and I can’t help feeling like there was something missing tonight. Maybe the crowd weren’t enthusiastic enough, maybe the band were a bit tired, but tonight The xx felt like a band who just don’t really care anymore.