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The wizardry of The xx

It’s as close to magic as you’ll get in Shepherd’s Bush.

You know you’re skirting pretty close to the heat when the touts are only offering to buy. Their shouts, outside the xx gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, sounded strangely curtailed, the result of a brutal jump-cut: tickets to buy, tickets to buy. This crowd wasn’t selling. They’d had their hair cut specially into homage-to-Romy asymmetric crops. They’d dug out their black vests. They’d put on Madonna-circa-1986 hats. They’d trimmed their beards.

The xx are Romy (guitars, vocals); Oliver (guitars, vocals); Jamie (wizard). They are a rare thing, a shy band. They don’t say much, apart from slipping near the end into a rush of anxious thank yous and a shout-out to a grandpa in the balcony. They sing in earnest – Romy breathy, Oliver growly, voices entwined into something rich and crunchy, edibly good.

This gig is a lesson in how you put on a show if you don’t like prancing about on stage or chatting to your fans. You need three things: smoke, lights, a surprise object. The smoke comes first, pumped and billowing long before the trio come out on stage. It all makes sense once the lights go down and a spotlight, swirled with clouds, falls on Romy singing “Angels”. But the lights have their own show to do, building as the bass gets thicker. These aren’t spotlights, or disco swoopers, or strobes, or circling glitter balls. These are lights as walls: wave after wave sweeping over the audience and then twisting back to decapitate the band, their heads in pitch black, bodies illuminated. They keep coming too, these lights, so just when you think the ship has steadied, there they are in different forms – as a fan from ceiling to floor, vertical, a slatted gate of light slicing through the crowd and then as a thumping glare, flashes of full white in time with the beat, so you get moments of screaming brightness followed by black again.

The object. It’s a big Perspex “X”, which isn’t that surprising, on reflection, but they unveil it like you might a design for man’s first wings and then combine all their learning, fill the X with smoke and shine lights on it.

X hits the spot

The crowd goes wild. To be accurate: at this point, the crowd are pretty much all watching the gig through their phones, on which they’re filming the gig, or taking pictures of the gig to post on Twitter. I had my first worryingly violent urge in months towards two girls standing next to us who shouted at each other’s faces throughout the songs and then stood facing the wrong way, back to the band, so that they could have their picture taken with the band in the background. We didn’t listen but we were here! Boom. Heads smash together into pulp.

One more thing: the wizard. He, Jamie, stands at the back, surrounded by drum pads and sequencers and cymbals. You can’t really make sense of what he’s doing back there, apart from the odd moment when you can equate the thump in your ear with the action of the drumstick in his hand, but it’s as close to magic as you’ll get in Shepherd’s Bush.

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?