VENUE: SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium
TICKET PRICE: ₩120 000 (I only ended up paying 60 000 though)
The focus of this blog is primarily on the underground electronic music scene here in Seoul, and I don’t really intend to write about much else on here. However, I had the chance to see a live performance by The xx the other night and I figured I’d scribble down some of my thoughts on the gig, both to add a little variety to the content and to give myself the opportunity to practice writing about something a little different.
When one of my colleagues managed to track down a couple of half-price tickets to The xx’s show in Seoul and asked me if I wanted to go, I said yes pretty much instantly. The xx is one of those bands that holds a lot of emotional resonance for me, even though my tastes have mutated pretty dramatically since I first fell in love with their sound and they’re no longer a group I can claim to actively listen to. When I first discovered the group around 2009 I was 18 years old and just finishing high school, and The xx’s idiosyncratic r&b-influenced indie pop debut album, xx, served to soundtrack a large part of that difficult transitional period between childhood and something closer to, but still not quite yet, adulthood.
Nearly a decade after its release on Young Turks, xx sounds more iconic than ever. It’s a sparse, delicate record, overflowing with a downcast but heartbreakingly direct kind of sincerity. On its release I genuinely don’t think anyone had heard anything quite like it; the combination of breathy, sultry vocal duets, understated yet infectious guitar hooks, and forward-thinking drumming and beat programming that together created something that felt so nuanced, so personal, so intimate. “Intimate” is the word that comes to mind most often whenever I try and put The xx into words; music that sounds like it was made in and for south London bedrooms in the quietest hours of the night. One of the most curious things about the album to me that something so incredibly personal and inward-looking could have such a wide-ranging global impact, lauded by everyone from the nerds over at Pitchfork to Shakira . Then again, maybe that’s not surprising at all; the core themes at the heart of xx – love, loss, longing, desire, loneliness, sex – are common to all of us.
After being showered with critical acclaim and commercial success, The xx (minus keyboardist and backup guitarist Baria Qureshi, who was asked to leave the band in late 2009 under circumstances that still remain mysterious, shrouded in rumour and salacious internet gossip) followed xx with sophomore album Coexist in 2012 and I See You in 2017. Coexist trod similar ground to their debut, though with perhaps a slightly heavier emphasis on groove and sensuality, while on I See You the band branched out a little, experimenting with a wider range of styles and approaches and producing something that was decidedly more upbeat than either of the two previous records. Both were strong albums loaded with memorable songs, for all that they languish a little in their predecessor’s shadow. In the meanwhile, the band’s drummer and beat-maker Jamie xx began to become recognized in his own right as a DJ and producer within the context of the post-dubstep boom period of British dance music, producing a handful of high-profile singles and remixes, a remix album of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here entitled We’re New Here, and a debut solo album, In Colour, which was loved by some and loathed by others.
I should probably pause for a second here and let it be known that I fall firmly into the latter category. I love The xx, but I don’t really care for Jamie as a solo artist. To my ears his production oscillates between being twee, bombastic and flat-out boring, and while I enjoy one or two of his tracks and really liked We’re New Here I would never go out of my way to listen to his material or catch a Jamie xx set – an opinion that was to an extent confirmed by the performance, which I’ll talk about in a bit.
The gig took place on Valentine’s Day eve in the SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium, located in Olympic Park in Songpa-gu in the south-east of the city and originally built for the 1988 summer Olympics. It’s a squat, circular building that according to it’s Wikipedia entry can seat 5, 0003 people, though I would guess that a little over 2 000 turned up for the show. Our tickets were, unfortunately, for seats rather than standing tickets, so I saw the performance from a fair distance away and seated the entire time – not my ideal way of attending any kind of concert – but after all they were half-price so it seems a little churlish to complain. The performance was supposed to start at 8 pm, but the band kept us waiting for about half an hour before they finally walked onto the stage – which I had been expecting (what band worth their salt ever starts on time?), but which my colleague was very annoyed by; according to her Korean artists would never leave their fans waiting like that. While we waited for The xx to show face I amused myself by scoping out the crowd; majority Korean, but with a higher-than-average number of waygookin, almost all of which seemed to be women, scattered among the audience.
As it turned out, the show was the very last one on The xx’s I See You tour, which began on February 8th last year. There was something special about being able to join them at the end of the tour – the end of one particular chapter in the story of the band, so to speak – but it was a double-edged sword; all three members – Guitarist and vocalist Romy Madley-Croft, bassist and vocalist Oliver Sim and drummer and electronics guy Jamie xx – were visibly exhausted, understandably so after having been on the road for over a year. The beginning of the show was especially choppy, with the band running through songs at what felt like a very rapid pace, barrelling into the tunes with little to no sense of build-up or introduction. “Islands”, arguably one of the most well-known standout tracks from xx, was the second or third song they played and while the crowd responded with screams of delight at the first few bars of the familiar melody I couldn’t help but wonder if it shouldn’t have been saved for a little later on in the evening. I began feeling a familiar, horrible sensation in my stomach – what if, in fact, this band that I had appreciated for so long actually… sucked? What if it turned out to be a bad show? I’m pretty sure a lot of the people reading this (if anyone is actually reading this, that is) know the feeling I mean: it’s kind of traumatic to finally get to see an artist you love live and find out that their stage show is kind of bad. Not that the initial few songs were actually all that bad, necessarily, the performance just felt a little… phoned in.
Ironically, the vibe of the show began to take a turn for the better around about the same time that Romy momentarily forgot how to play her instrument. In what was definitely one of the most endearing moments of the evening, she struggled to pull off the opening bars of ‘A Violent Noise’, starting and stopping again and again as the right notes continued to elude her, even going so far as to swap out guitars at one point. My heart went out to her; I can’t imagine how stressful and embarrassing it must be to run into a hiccup like that in the middle of a performance, in front of thousands of people. But she handled it like an absolute champion, refusing Oliver Sim’s gentle suggestion that they move on to the next song and trying the riff again and again until she eventually got it right. When she finally managed it, the entire atmosphere of the gig changed; the crowd burst into a roar of congratulations, Madley-Croft’s face lit up in triumph, Sim strode over to plant a kiss on her head before throwing himself into the bassline. It took a while to get there, but the rendition of ‘A Violent Noise’ that they eventually pulled off catapulted the song right to the top of my personal ranking of xx tunes. And man, was it worth the wait… it seemed like after getting over the grinding awkwardness that plagued the start of the song the whole band seemed to loosen up and enjoy themselves more, and a strong sense of almost familial warmth and intimacy (there’s that word again!) began to show, between the members on stage as well as between The xx and their audience. Especially palpable was the sense of on-stage chemistry between Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim. The two complimented each other perfectly, gazing into each other’s eyes as they strummed their guitars, their voices alternating in smoky, poetic duets suffused with the sense of yearning and heartache familiar from The xx’s studio albums. But where their voices on the albums were mostly murmur, their vocals on stage were suffused with confidence and presence, lending the duo a kind of command largely absent from their recorded work. It’s easy to see why for a long time fans of the band were convinced the two were secretly dating – rumours that were finally put to rest with Romy Madley-Croft’s engagement and the revelation that she bats for the other team. When Madley-Croft took centre-stage for a powerful solo performance of “Performance”, however, she showed that she was more than capable of commanding the rapt attention of the crowd without Oliver or Jamie’s support; her vulnerable croon sent honest-to-god chills through my entire body.
If Romy Madley-Croft dominated the beginning of The xx’s set, then Oliver Sim was the star of the middle. After pausing to throw out a few polite concert clichés at the crowd – “we love you Seoul”, “so happy to be here”, etc. etc., the usual stuff, harmless but a little cheesy – he descended off stage and down into the crowd, hi-fiving people as he strode towards a smaller stage set up towards the end of the standing area. From down there he launched into ‘Fiction’ a brooding, bass-driven number from Coexist written by Sim himself, whose lyrics seem, like a lot of The xx’s tracks, to be about a painful breakup (or were they ever together at all?). There was a certain irony to be had in playing the song the day before Valentine’s, as Sim wryly acknowledged.
So far I’ve spent a lot of words gushing about how much I enjoyed Romy and Oliver’s performances, but I haven’t said that much about Jamie xx, frankly because I don’t have that many nice things to say. To my mind, he’s the weak link of the group, and there were several times where I felt as if his booming electronic percussion felt overbearing and forced, working at odds with the gentle, soulful atmosphere being carefully put together by his bandmates. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of his contributions, though. One of his high points towards the end of the show was a stunning live remix version of Shelter, with Romy and Oliver singing over a sparkling swirl of synth notes and machine kicks that turned the angsty, wistful number into a total bop. This was followed by a live rendition of one of Jamie xx’s own solo pieces, “Loud Places”, which I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed overmuch in studio form but which was really powerful and impactful on stage, especially in conjunction with the excellent lighting work from The xx’s stage crew. What good will I’d begun to feel for him off the back of those two songs, however, was lost when he launched into a long, filter-heavy jacking house track, utterly jarring and completely out of step with the atmosphere built up throughout the show. Romy and Oliver managed to salvage the end of the show, however, closing with a beautiful rendition of “Intro” and then dusting off “Angel” as an encore number, prompting the entire audience to sing along to the final refrain of “love, love, love” – a fitting end given the date, and the key themes that have dominated The xx’s music for the last nine years.
Overall, I’d say I’m glad I took the chance to see The xx perform. Musically, the show fell a bit flat for me more than once, and I’m not sure if I would ever make much of an effort to see the a second time. Nevertheless, it was really something special seeing the band interact with each other on stage, and witnessing the warmth, familiarity, friendship and love that they clearly share for each other. The impression I was left with was that the band plays together because they really, really love playing together, and they really, really, love each other; and that’s the kind of artistic vision I can definitely get behind.