Review: The xx – Ulster Hall, Belfast
Last night Belfast prepared for a very special night of music as English trio The xx paid a visit for the first time in 5 years. A much anticipated night squeezing an explosive discography into the intimate Ulster Hall sold out almost immediately, with fans from all over the country gathering to hear the band showcase work from album number three for their I See You tour. The crowd were in for a truly immersive night of music not only from our headliner, but perfectly matched support KARYYN.
Touring since February 2017 in support of their latest Mercury prize nominated release I See You (2017), The xx embarked on multiple legs of a tour that took them worldwide. Unfortunately, but all too familiar, Belfast was not included in initial plans. However, after a brief but well deserved break after 1 year of touring, the band returned to the stage this month to bring a night of music to those European and North American cities that missed out.
The trio have a special, familiar sound that has been evolving for over a decade, reaching critical acclaim from the very beginnings with the release of their debut album xx in August 2009. Since then, Romy Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith, also known as Jamie xx, have blended together their talents perfectly to create and release a further 2 albums – Coexist (2012) and I See You (2017).
As the band have grown so has their music. Defined by a minimalist sound that softly blends classic alternative rock with dance, electro-rock, R&B and indie pop, synthesizers and distorted guitars delicately swim in the echoing duel vocals of Croft and Sim.
While their latest release in January 2017 took the band in a more energetic, eclectic direction they still remain true to their roots, and it is that mixture of new elements with the sound their fans know and love that shot the album to number 1 in the UK and number 2 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Crowds swarmed Ulster Hall fairly early on in anticipation for a sold out gig. A buzz of excitement filled the iconic venue as composer turned electronic artist and support act KARYYN graced the stage, our only indicator two dark figures under two smokey spotlights.
The Syrian-Armenian American artist, accompanied only by a violinist, keyboard, synthesizer and two microphones, engulfed the whole room in her operatic laments from debut EP QUANTA 1, released February 2017. Her celestial vocals with immense depth were powerful enough to completely swallow up any chat from those still filtering into the room, the positioned crowd completely hypnotised.
KARYYN delivered a set that so delicately and perfectly intertwined each song that together it created one piece of musical art, the crowd unsure when to interject and applaud. Deep rumbles created a sturdy foundation for the haunting vocals from singles such as ‘ALEPPO’ and ‘BINARY’, a sound sure to continue throughout the night.
Still adjusting to a ringing silence after an amazing set from the support, the crowd were plunged into darkness as The xx walked on stage. With barely a minute for the crowd to process their loss of sight, the band plunged straight into the first song from their latest release ‘Dangerous’. Smokey, dusty spotlights swoop over the three-piece as their ethereal sound positively consumes the whole room.
It became evident from the very beginning that we were in for a treat, with a set that went beyond simply ticking boxes and performing hits in between crowd interaction and gimmicks. This was a fully evolved musical piece, complete with carefully planned visuals and setlist. Moody lighting flowed perfectly with Croft and Sim’s vocals as they delivered a setlist that covered new and old, including songs such as ‘Islands’ and ‘Say Something Loving’.
Much like the support, the band sacrificed oversaturated crowd interaction for music, with any brief moment of silence snatched by an explosive applause from a crowd in awe. Sim told the crowd how important a night it was to them, explaining that it had been a few months since they had been on stage ‘so this is 10 out of 10 for excitement, nerves, anxiety and joy all rolled into one.’
Brief comments from the band were always finished with a realisation of the real reason they were there – ‘but yes, more music.’ A spotlight poured onto the dark stage which Croft then commanded alone for a very special performance of, well, ‘Performance‘ from their latest album, her soft vocals bouncing from wall to wall along with the ringing of her guitar. You could barely hear her speak following the song, the applause made louder only by the news that Croft’s dad, who is no longer with us, was from Belfast which is why it holds a very special place in her heart.
This was one of many heartwarming moments during the set, together with the music that made for quite an emotional night. It was incredibly evident how appreciative the band were of the crowd, who commanded and took over the delicate vocals of ‘I Dare You’, the band taking a step back in awe.
Crowd appreciation from the band went beyond a step back and into gift giving, with Sim complimenting the two in the front on their smiles and giving one of them flowers after finding out it was her birthday.
And emotional moments went beyond gift giving, with an explosion of screams from the middle of the room during the concluding song ‘Angels’ turning heads to reveal a proposal right in the middle of the crowd.
That moment, together with Sim’s promotion of happiness, are what took the night to the next level. Pausing before the next song, Sim interjected with ‘I just want to say – all I can ever hope for people who come here is they have fun. We all have 101 reasons to feel upset but when you come through this door you leave it there and just enjoy yourselves.’
Finishing with singles ‘On Hold‘ and ‘Angels‘, the band concluded an incredibly intense yet wholesome set, reminding the crowd that ‘we see you, we love you and we will see you again soon.’
There is absolutely no way to fault what The xx had just delivered, and as they left the stage the crowd remained, recovering from a night that went beyond a simple gig and became a completely immersive experience. An experience made better only by the down to earth nature of the artists and the newly engaged couple hidden in amongst us. Shoutout to the happy couple and heads up to anyone that ever plans on proposing to anyone ever – that’s a hard one to beat.