My weekend with the xx, from St. Paul to Milwaukee

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The xx in action at the Palace. Leslie Plesser

The xx brought the sound of South London through the Midwest this weekend.

Fresh off a pair of high-profile sets at Coachella, the UK electropop trio played two sold-out shows in St. Paul and Milwaukee, treating the packed rooms to their intoxicating, Mercury Prize-winning sound and a riveting light show to match.

The 80-minute sets played out as a celebration of the intimate connection that the band has forged with their audience, as well as a visible tribute to the creative partnership that longtime friends Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith have forged together over their decade-plus as a group.

The music of the xx demands patience, with the icy tension of the songs gradually swelling to reveal a series of genuine emotions that resonates with fans who have taken these fractured anthems to heart. Their material eloquently captures the unpredictable evolution of love, from the breathless first throes of passion to the mundane moments that often shape our memories to the painful sting of heartbreak and loss. Many of their songs exist in the lonely, empty spaces that await when relationships end, or in the overwhelming joy when you find someone who makes you believe in love once again.

The sets (which were identical each night) played out in much the same way, with the lovelorn optimism of the start of the show (“Say Something Loving,” “Crystalised,” “I Dare You”) giving way to the slow-burning middle portion of the set which illuminated the anxiety that comes with isolation and insecurity (“Basic Space,” “Performance,” “Brave For You”). But gradually, the songs took on a lighter hue, pushed forward by the vibrant, textured beats and electronic flourishes of Jamie xx (“Infinity,” “Dangerous, “Shelter,” “Loud Places”). The triumphant end of the main set felt more like a rave, its joyous release like a hopeful sunrise after a dark night of soul-searching.

The xx is a rare group that appears to be playing for each other, as well as with each other. They reveal their innermost secrets within their music, and turn to each other for reassurance that they aren’t in this alone, while the music helps them try to make sense of it all. Romy prefaced a stunning solo rendition of “Performance” by apprehensively admitting, “I’m playing this song by myself, which is really scary.” Rather than leaving the stage during that moment, as other bands do when a member plays solo, Oliver and Jamie both watched intently, moved just as the audience was by her bravery. Oliver even gave Romy an affectionate hug after she finished, a tender gesture that encapsulated how the crowd adores her.

“We just finished playing one of your country’s most famous festivals,” Sim said, after instructing the lights to be turned on in the theater. “As much fun as it was, you are so far away from people at Coachella. It’s so nice to see all of your faces.” That bond between artist and audience is an underlying theme of the xx’s recent album, I See You, which revels in the fragile beauty of relationships, personal and professional, that enrich our lives.

“We see you, and we love you, and we’ll hopefully see you again soon,” Romy said warmly at the close of each show, further fortifying the connection with the crowd. The band left us with the gentle billet-doux “Angels,” a musical embrace from the group for everyone in the room, to ease us all along on our journey while reminding us that love – of family, of friends, of music itself -- will see us through the dark moments of our lives while reminding us that we are never truly alone.

A Note About the Opener: Electro-soul singer Sampha was the perfect accompaniment to the xx, furthering the South London Midwestern weekend takeover. The Drake/Kanye/Solange collaborator shared much of his recently released solo album, Process, with a crowd enthralled by his impassioned sound from the start. Sampha was joined by three other musicians who added textured flourishes to his rich, vibrant sound. “Timmy’s Prayer,” “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” and “Blood On Me,” all soared, with Sampha’s dynamic stage presence breathing additional life into songs that were already alight with emotion and elegance.

A Note About the Venues: This was my first proper show at the Palace Theater, and “First Avenue East” lived up to the hype and then some. The sound and sight lines are both immaculate, and rather than scouring the historic venue until it lost its weathered charm, the renovations left some of the imperfections in place so that even though its been fully operational for a little over a month now, the Palace still feels lived-in and the history of the room still echoes throughout the club’s vast, distinguished corners.

The same cannot be said of the Rave in Milwaukee, sadly. I’ve been attending shows here since the start of the ‘90s, and rather than make the improvements that the venue desperately needs (in the sound system, entryways, exterior, and concessions) the place has been mainly left alone to deteriorate over the years. The sound -- especially when the bass and rhythms of the xx grew thunderous -- was muddy and muffled, while the vocals were often lost in the vast echoey expanse of the outdated room. It made me realize just how lucky we are to have so many world class venues in the Twin Cities.

A Note About the Weekend: Following the xx from St. Paul on Friday to Milwaukee on Saturday provided a small glimpse into what life on the road is like for touring musicians. After a late night on Friday, driving 5 1/2 hours to Milwaukee the following morning was arduous and exhausting. Having to conjure up some energy to head out to the show proved to be a challenge, and all that was required of me was just standing there and listening -- the bands (and their crew) are the ones doing all the real work, and they deserve our accolades and appreciation. Touring this country is a tough slog for any band, whether they are selling out theaters or playing for the regulars in a dive bar, and I'm grateful to all the musicians who bring their music to every far-flung corner of our country.

Setlist
Say Something Loving
Crystalised
Islands
I Dare You
Lips
Sunset
Basic Space
Performance
Brave For You
Infinity
VCR
Dangerous
Fiction
Shelter
Loud Places

Encore
On Hold
Intro
Angels 


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