A lot of things about last night's double-header with British dance-rock bands the XX and Friendly Fires absolutely cracked me up. Like the fact that their two mega-sized tour buses parked out front were literally bigger than the club, at least length-wise (you'd think a young three-piece like the XX could squeeze into a van at least for its first U.S. tour; this is why record companies love the words "recoupable debt"). And the fact that somebody paid $50 for one of the sold-out $12 tickets out front while I stood there, debating whether or not to tell the poor sucker that the XX had just been booked again at the Varsity Theater for April 4.
And I really was amused by the fact that I was able to halfway decent, relatively unblurry photo of the XX on stage despite the incredibly poor lighting and my small camera -- a feat that could squarely be attributed to the fact that the band members stood as still as Windsor Palace guards on stage.
The two bands' absolutely yin-and-yang style of sets was also quite laughable, in a good way. The XX sounded even more minimalist and lo-fi on stage as on its cool debut record, thanks in part to the recent departure of the group's keyboardist. Drummer/programmer/producer Jamie Smith dutifully bounced between dub-like rhythmic parts and synth bits at the back of the stage while singer/bassist Oliver Sim and singer/guitarist Romy Madley-Croft worked off each other out front. Their sexy vocal sparring was the backbone of the show, especially in songs such as the thumping "Islands" and the underwater-sounding "Basic Space."
Before "Crystalised" ("the hit"), Sim warned the crowd, "We only just became a three-piece, and we're still adjusting. So we might [mess] this one up."
"Crystalised" actually sounded pretty great, but there definitely were times the XX's 40-minute set lagged, and the band's overall sound came off as too hollow and barren, like skeletal versions of what could be better songs. Maybe they should go ahead and trade in that bus for a fourth or even fifth member.
Friendly Fires have done just that: expanded to a sextet from a trio, including horn players. What a sharp contrast its hyperactive set was to the XX's dour delivery. Frontman Ed Macfarlane bounced madly around the stage and quickly worked up enough sweat to share with all of the immobile XX members.
Alongside Macfarlane, Jack Savidge worked his drums like a bona-fide dance-beat maestro, proving why he deserved to have his kit at the front of the stage. Honestly, I only stuck around in part to see how many people left after the XX (maybe just a fifth of the crowd), but I was pleasantly surprised by FF's energy. The songs still came off as pretty inane and saccharine, and Macfarlane's squelching voice often sounded grating. But at least they proved not all British dance-rockers are downers.