It takes a special alchemy to change such an empty room into a space of maximum emotion.
(Photo: Cédric Fumière)
Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum is the place where good concerts go to die. It’s a vast, soulless arena better suited for a collegiate basketball game than any sort of musical entertainment. When Arcade Fire played there on its Reflektor tour, we got to hear half the concert twice as it echoed back at us. The arena lives in the shadow (literally) of the Moda Center, home to the Portland Trailblazers and designer food vendors, the place where Radiohead plays when it comes to town. Here in Portland, the Coliseum is an afterthought, a real estate developer’s wet dream.
You had two options when it came to tickets for the xx, coming to town off its Coachella set: general admission floor or general admission bowl. Choose the floor, you have to fight for a good position on the arena. Choose the bowl, you can either sit close with a side view (and little legroom) or sit a mile away in the back with a full view of the stage. Once you decide, you can buy your $9 Budweiser and imagine all the other good places to see a show in town.
The xx negated everything written in the prior two paragraphs. Somehow this three-person band transformed one of the worst venues in the city, turning it into an intimate space, one where no note reverberated too long or caromed off and echoed back. It was big show perfection, a testament to a band that made its name writing quiet, spare songs.
It’s hard to believe that the xx is no longer a “new” band. They dropped their self-titled debut back in 2009. When I saw them open for some other long-forgotten band back then, singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim hunched over their microphones, eyes darting nervously, almost apologetic for being on the stage. Nine years makes a big difference. Both musicians danced this time, stood with legs wide apart, bona fide rock stars. Behind them, beatmaker Jamie XX and his table were flanked by a set that mimicked the reflective surface of the band’s third and latest album, I See You, which made great use of the colored lights and never threatened to overwhelm the concert despite the warnings of hazers and strobes posted outside the arena.
Though the set did draw heavily from I See You, the xx played a good amount of its older songs, gussied up in new arrangements. It makes sense as the band has progressed from the half-whispered confessionals of its debut, experimenting with bigger sounds, samples and anthemic sweep while still maintaining a fragment of its prior minimalism. Croft’s guitar retains its signature tone, while Sim’s bass still punctuates the songs with surprising heft.
The 18-song set lasted 90 captivating minutes, the musicians pausing only a few times to thank the crowd and even stopped a song when someone passed out in the pit up front. They waited until the afflicted person was carried off to safety before starting up again (Sim later told us the fan was okay). Among the highlights were Croft’s solo take on “Pantomime,” while “Brave for You” became a sweeping sing-along. “Shelter” changed from its melancholy roots into a club banger. By the time the band ended with the bittersweet “Angels,” most of the people seated in the bowl section were on their feet, screaming for more. It takes a special alchemy to change such an empty room into a space of maximum emotion, the type of show that reaches even the people sitting in the back. The xx not only accomplished this feat, but put on one of the best concerts I’ve seen recently.