For many bands, four and a half years is nearly an eternity between albums, and a band who isn’t careful can come back to find that the world has moved on. The xx finally released I See You, their follow-up to 2012’s Coexist, early this year, and fortunately came back to find the fans still waiting with anticipation. Part of that may have come down to the success of producer Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx)’s solo debut In Colour which, with its 2015 release, served as a stopgap for fans anxiously awaiting new music from the London trio. It also doubtlessly helped that I See You is by far the band’s strongest effort yet, showing a greater variety in songcraft, stronger vocals from singer and bassist Oliver Sim, and a more approachable sound which sheds some of the more distancing elements of the band’s earlier work while still maintaining its edge. Their tour for the album saw them return to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD, where the band took to the stage on a rainy evening last Saturday.
The cold and the wet didn’t dampen the spirits of the crowd, who arrived early for up-and-coming London-based electronica and soul artist Sampha, whose own rise has been meteoric. The singer went from playing U Street Music Hall last October, to selling out the 9:30 Club in February, and now to opening at Merriweather, and listening to his set it was easy to see the appeal. With a musical aesthetic that might most readily be compared to a more soulful James Blake, Sampha and his backing band played through songs from his recent debut album Process.
The nearly hour-long changeover between sets might have seemed excessively long (this is a band that enjoys making us wait, it seems), but when The xx took to the stage, it was immediately apparent why. With a mirrored floor, rotating mirrored columns, and a raised glass booth for Smith and his various electronics and percussion instruments, it was clear that a lot of work and thought had been put into the stage production of the show. Combined with a minimalist and tasteful lighting design, the setup provided a futuristic feel and kept the show visually interesting, without ever threatening to take over. Such thought into the visual aspects of a show seem rare these days, but it certainly helped to set the mood of the performance.
As for the music, the band started the show off with the second track from the new album, “Say Something Loving,” a song with its own clear soul music influences that proved to be a good transition from Sampha’s set. The band then looked back to their self-titled 2009 debut for “Crystalized” and “Islands” before returning back to I See You for “I Dare You.” Like on the albums, Sim and singer/guitarist Romy Croft traded back and forth on vocals, but Sim’s newfound vocal confidence made them much more evenly matched than before. The rest of the show consisted of about an equal mix of old and new tracks, danceable at times and chilled out at others, to create one of the most ambient performances that Merriweather will likely see this year.
I See You is a huge leap forward for The xx, and based on the strength of both it and their performance, it’s clear that they are a band that is still growing and still has a lot to offer. Hopefully they won’t make us wait quite so long to see where they’re headed next.