The xx | Review
The Ulster Hall, Belfast • 21 May 2018
By Stewart Robson • Photos: Marta Janiszewska
There is nowhere quite like the Ulster Hall. Architecturally stunning, with walls that have witnessed an eclectic mix of music and voices in its rich and illustrious past. On Monday evening there was a beautiful parallel as The xx dropped their futuristic and somewhat mould-breaking sound onto the surface of the grand old venue.
A sold-out crowd with an age range spanning across the band’s existence had gathered to delve into wonder of their albums, two of which have reached number one in the UK album charts (2012’s Coexist and last years I See You).
It’s been five years since they last played in Belfast and by the warmth given to the band when they graced the dark, moody and half-lit stage, this was going to be a very welcome, and long overdue return. The stage set-up is impressive. Jamie xx, who released his debut solo album, Colours, in 2015, seems to have every piece of electronic music device ever created at his fingertips as he settles at home amongst them in what can only be described as a replica of Deep Space 9.
Romy (vocals and guitar) and Oliver Sim (vocals and bass) take position at either side of the stage and their smiles can be spotted from the back of the room. They’re just as happy to be back as their fans are to have them here.
Kicking off with I See You opener ‘Dangerous’, it’s not hard to see why The xx have endured longer than some of their peers who sprung onto the British music scene in the mid-noughties. This is a band willing to break boundaries and to continue pushing themselves just that little bit further with every album. This is most apparent in the opening few songs of the set as we’re brought back to 2009 with the minimalistic sounds of ‘Islands’ and ‘Crystalised’, but still, they sound so relevant and contemporary.
It’s a career spanning set that seamlessly intertwines. Watching The xx is an ethereal journey, passing from song to song effortlessly between the screams of the crowd. You could hear a pin drop when the reverb of Romy’s guitar opens ‘Performance’. Sim sits just behind her, gazing in awe of his bandmate as she encapsulates the genuine and heartfelt nature of the song’s lyrics. Every member of the crowd was spellbound. A beautiful moment.
This set wasn’t short of moments like that. Romy paid a tribute to her father with a song dedication and a reminder of her Northern Irish roots. Her father, sadly no long with us, was a Belfast native. We’re very close to our own here in Northern Ireland and this connection seems to draw the crowd in further and create a special bond. Sim also took a central role telling everyone to leave their troubles at the door and to simply ‘have fun’ tonight. Everyone listened up.
With moments as subtle and as simple as Romy standing centre stage with a guitar, to Jamie xx showing how much of a master he is at his craft, the band never let up showing off their talents. Their New Wave influences shone through as New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ was merged with ‘Fiction’ to create a pulsating remix driven by that instantly recognisable hook.
The lights and lasers accompany every beat to pinpoint precision. Hitting against the opulent chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, they make the show even more of a spectacle. Jamie xx’s Deep Space 9 was taking full flight.
No more so than when we were given the divine pleasure of hearing ‘Loud Places’ from his debut album. The lighting changed from white and black, the two-tone colours synonymous with the band, to a festival of shades from green to yellow and blue to pink. The Ulster Hall turned into one hell of a party. It was another indication that this band can stretch from minimal guitars to soulful dance grooves. Expertly I should add.
The party almost escalated into a rave as Romy and Sim departed before the encore. Jamie xx retained his position and had everyone, even those on the balcony, on their feet. It was joyous.
‘On Hold’, perhaps the most well-known song from last year’s album, kicked off the encore. It generated a euphoric sing-along. The set was draped in crowd participation emphasising the genuine love for this band from their Belfast tribe.
Speaking of love, the set couldn’t have ended more aptly as ‘Angels’ reverberated around the room. ‘They would be as in love with you as I am’ is the chorus of this hauntingly beautiful song. This is the line sung to a girl by her now fiancée as he dropped to his knee midway through the song which maybe got the biggest cheer of the night. Congratulations to you both. A really lovely moment.
I sure hope it isn’t another five years before we see this much-needed band return to our shores. If you’re still somewhat unfamiliar with the joy The xx can bring through their hypnotic, elegant and atmospheric sound then I urge you to envelope yourself in their music. Go on, I Dare You.