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[Updated] The xx at Coachella: The courage to play quiet amid all the noise

April 18, 2010 | 10:26 pm


There's been a lot of noise at Coachella this year. One prance through the Sahara Tent offers proof: whereas the beats in years past have, for the most part, been awash in pretty sounds and smooth echoes, this year the booms are interlaced with static, with weird blurts and bleeps, with white noise and dark frequencies. During Proxy's Friday afternoon gig at the Sahara tent, the stacks of speakers poured forth with sibilant hiss and deep, rumbling bass. San Francisco band Girls ended their rich, melodic set with a wall of beautiful but not un-harsh feedback.

Elsewhere on the pitch, bands are sandwiched between speaker towers larger than their houses and making noise at incredible volumes. For many of the musicians, this is the biggest set-up they've ever played on, a teen dream, so the understandable reflex when making a set list is to pick the loud stuff to get everybody's attention. Noise begets more noise, until volume is king and whispers are useless.

It takes nerve in this domain to bring the silence.

The xx are a young British band whose self-titled debut is a quiet, 3 a.m. (eternal) masterpiece of smokey restraint. Over the course of its 45-minute set, the xx offered the occasional jolt of climactic volume and one beautiful bass-rumbling moment, but such outward signs of emotion were the exception. Too, the three members don't do much on stage. 

Singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft looks like a young Alison Moyet and picks at her guitar with intent; bassist Oliver Sim moves to and from the mic with casual grace, and percussionist Jamie Smith pokes at vintage synthetic beat boxes using his fingers as drumsticks.

Playing on the Outdoor Theatre stage just before sunset, the band stood nearly nearly motionless while activity of 75,000 others swirled around them. The highlight was the slice-of-life bliss of "VCR," a lament of life (and a dead medium). 

Across the pitch on the main stage, Coheed and Cambria were bringing the prog metal, but over here, things were simple and beautifully static -- until smoke and flames from Coheed & Cambria's misifired pyrotechnics show diverted attention mid-song, and much of the xx's confused audience rubbernecked to see the fire and imagine the worst: A burning main stage.

As the song wound down, xx bassist Sim uttered words usually saved for funk shows and frat parties -- except in a droll, understated British accent:

"The roof is on fire," he said, and he just as well could have been telling you that we all breathe oxygen, so casual was his demeanor. The xx kept playing on, as the flames grew smaller, the smoke thinned, then stopped -- the fire out but the heat remaining.

-- Randall Roberts

Updated: The original version of this post confused the names of the singer and percussionist of the xx. We have corrected the above text.  

Photo: The xx at Coachella. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times