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Strange Powers: The xx at Big Ears Fest

March 27, 2010 |  4:27 pm

I can't recall a more unexpected reaction to a performance than the one that I witnessed Friday night at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tenn., around midnight on the first night of this classy college town's annual Big Ears Festival. Crowds can be diffident when artists give their all, or can prop up favorites as they barely deliver. But this show was a fascinating case of desire stimulated by seeming diffidence -- the crowd as young besotted lover driven ever more hungry by her crush ignoring her .

The band was the xx, the young London-based trio (formerly a quartet) whose 2009 debut was bear-hugged by critics (Andrew Gaerig, writing on the taste-making website Pitchfork.com, declared it "so fully formed and thoughtful that it feels like three or four lesser, noisier records should have preceded it) and taken up by the usual set of programmers for television commercials and nighttime soaps. Guitarist-singer Romy Madley-Croft, bassist-singer Oliver Sim, and knob-twiddler Jamie Smith, barely out of their teen years, have been hailed as prodigies for making forcefully slow, cold music about what usually gets adolescents hot -- sexual desire, its thwarting and (occasional, possible) fulfillment.

The xx borrows indirectly from contemporary black pop auteurs like Timbaland and The-Dream, and more clearly from its native synth-pop tradition, to create a sound that is not so much inviting or engaging as difficult to turn away from once you've noticed it. Songs like "Islands" and "Basic Space," with their artless lyrics, plain vocals and somnolent guitar lines and beats, seem so private that listening can feel like an invasion.

At the Bijou, an ornate 100-year-old theater that was packed with PBR-swilling festivalgoers and many audience members who seemed nothing like the early pop adapters Big Ears is programmed to attract, the xx took the stage with a hidden flourish and performed with exaggerated constraint. First appearing behind a scrim that invoked the New Romantics groups their parents probably loved, and which dropped without landing on anyone, the three musicians followed the tried-and-true formula of English synth-pop: big gestures, coy emotions.

Smith fiddled scientifically with his deck; Sim swayed and struck poses with a mimelike fierceness while Madley-Croft murmured and pulled out the band's most potent communication tool: crystalline guitar lines that had more than one oldster in the crowd wishing the group would cover some Chris Isaak tunes.

Yet while this display wholly deserved quiet respect and even the occasional round of thrilled applause, the audience at the Bijou went much further. On its feet before the show began, the 700-capacity crowd danced with abandon and frequently erupted into screams. On the balcony, one couple made out so exhibitionistically that the pair had to be separated by a decorum-conscious security guard. It was all very strange -- a heavy metal response to a New Wave offering.

One hopes this bodes well for the rest of the Big Ears festival, programmed with love by Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps and this year's guest curator Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the National. This small  fest is one of the year's most forward-thinking, combining titans and pioneers of new music -- 2010's artist-in-residence is the legendary minimalist composer Terry Riley, whose quartet delivered a warmly ingenious set earlier in the evening and received a standing ovation in the same theater -- with arsty pop purveyors like the xx, edgy rock bands like the black metal group Liturgy, and those uncategorizables Joanna Newsom and Nico Muhly.

It would be great if some of the less au courant acts at this fest enjoyed the wild adulation that greeted the xx. It might not happen. But the fact that it did, once, shows that far outside the fashion capitols of New York and Los Angeles, people can go mad for new faces and sounds, even when their onstage demeanor carries the threat that these dreamboats might not love them back.

-- Ann Powers

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