Review: The xx and Warpaint at The Fox

Last week’s xx show at The Fox was a welcome surprise for me. I hadn’t been planning on going, but my friend Catherine convinced me it would be fun. I was dubious. Although I’m a fan of The xx’s music, their live show sounded like it would be incredibly frustrating experience for me. I’d heard from some of my fellow photographers that the band played on a very dark stage and didn’t move around very much. But as they say, “timing is everything.” I hadn’t shot a live show in a few weeks and was really itching to be back in the pit again. So on Thursday night I headed over to the east bay with low expectations. Foolish me.

I had a ticket, so I was fortunate to get in early to also see/photograph the two opening bands, Zola Jesus and Warpaint.

Nika Roza, (aka Zola Jesus) paced back and forth like a caged animal at the zoo. Although her movement was off-putting, her voice was golden and soothing. I just wish there was a little more meat to her musical accompaniment. While her band was perfectly competent, she needs moth than a couple of synths to support her powerful voice.

Next up was one of my favorite bands of late, Warpaint. I first saw Warpaint opening for School of Seven Bells at Slims last October. Their feminine vibe and haunting melodies left a lasting impression, and I’m really looking forward to their debut full length, The Fool which hits the streets in about a month. The addition of drummer Stella Mozgawa really cements the group as a feminine musical force to be reckoned with.

Thursday’s show was as usual, extremely understated. Lead singer Emily Kokal looked as if she’d just rolled out of bed. While the look was frumpy, the music was anything but. Their woozy guitar-laden music pulses with a deep energy that feels intensely feminine. Warpaint’s live performance is still a bit of a diamond in the rough; they haven’t yet adapted their performance for these larger audiences and stages.

While The Fantastic Mr Fox started spinning stage left, right behind him there was plenty of behind-the-scenes-preparation going on behind a big black curtain. Once the show began, it was clear what all those stagehands had been doing: Setting up a damn-fine stage set and light show.

In a recent LA Times interview, Oliver Sim talked about the band’s thought process regarding performing in larger venues.

“We knew we needed to put on more of a show, so we had to ask ourselves if we wanted to make more money ourselves — or spend it on lights? In the end, we went with the bigger show. I felt like we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and people really liked the album, but we weren’t at all comfortable onstage for a long time. Now, I feel like we’re less rigid and can perform a bit more. I know it’s taken a long time to grow into that, though.”

Fucking brilliant decision, kids! The lighting and set design was was an ephemeral bit of chiaroscuro that Michelangelo would have admired. The lighting created a gorgeous shadow-filled space for the trio to conjure up their intimately private music in a venue as large as The Fox Theater. The xx’s music is all about the excitement and anxiety of teen lust and the vulnerability that comes with it. Being draped in light and shadow only helped to amplify and intensify the already moody music. I hope bands that like to play in the dark like Interpol, Serena Maneesh, Echo & The Bunnymen, Antony and the Johnsons take note of this approach and realize there is a way to have your dark cake and eat it, too.

Romy’s vocals were butter-smooth yet perfectly timid. The LA Times aptly described her voice as “pillow talk for goths.” Somehow the back and forth banter of the songs seemed even more stark and vulnerable when performed live, probably because the lights were set up to shroud all but one player in the trio.

Romy still seems quite firmly planted in one spot, but Oliver’s comfort level with performing now allows him to sway and swoon about, seeming to be pulled by an invisible tide. I loved watching the intensity of his far-off gaze. One of my favorite songs of the night was an xx-ified cover of Womack & Womack’s Teardrops. Oliver apologized for any flubs before beginning, explaining they hadn’t played it in almost a year. It sounded perfect to me. I have a feeling it will be a regular addition to the set for this final leg of their US tour.

View the full xx photo album on flickr:
[flickr album=72157624906731645 num=5 size=Thumbnail]

View the full Warpaint photo album on flickr:
[flickr album=72157624915902461 num=5 size=Thumbnail]

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