By: Arman SerradoSpecial to The Chronicle
About fifteen minutes before The xx’s set at The Bronx’s Paradise Theater on Friday, crew members draped a giant cloth over the stage, obscuring the set-up and spurring a flurry of excited chatter among the crowd. “I remember this, I think it falls down during their first song,” said the guy behind me. The band certainly put it to good use: as the lights dimmed, a projection of what resembled a seeping lava lamp appeared on the cloth, and a lone spotlight revealed co-lead Romy Madley Croft standing quietly behind it, strumming the first few notes to “Angels.” “And the end comes too soon, like dreaming of angels,” she sang. The cloth fell. It all set a nice precedent for the rest of the show, which was defined as much by the drama of its theatrics as the music. A stunning light show provided a breathtaking accompaniment to the band’s stark rhythms as fog snaked around the trio — for a majority of the show, the most I saw of the band were their silhouettes. Croft’s co-lead Oliver Sim exhibited a cocksureness that seemed almost contrary to the subdued nature of their music, swiveling his body to and fro as he played his sparse basslines. And it all barreled down toward the end of “Infinity,” the set’s climax. “Give it up.” “I won’t give it up,” Sim and Croft pleaded to each other as band producer Jamie Smith worked his drum machine with gusto. Behind them, a curtain rose, revealing a giant replica of their now-iconic X emblem. They left the stage for the encore, leaving the X to cast an eerie glow on the crowd. For any other band, these theatrics would seem gimmicky. But the reason they not only work to The xx’s favor but serve to enhance their live show, is that their songs are so sparse, so skeletal in the first place that a live visual component is actually necessary. Their songs conjure images of darkened bedrooms and intimate conversations, hazy images that are, at best, blurry at the edges and sink out of view once the song ends. But once you see Croft’s and Sim’s silhouettes purring to each other in the fog and the occasional flood of light punctuating a stabbing beat from Smith, these images come into focus, and vague declarations like “You light up the sky / Unshadow the moon / The moments we share / Always end too soon” suddenly make a whole lot of sense. In many ways, The xx aren’t the same band they were three years ago when their debut “xx” dropped. The band, originally a foursome, became a trio after guitarist Baria Qureshi left their ranks, inciting a small controversy. (The band cited “exhaustion” for her sudden disappearance, but Qureshi claimed she was essentially kicked out by the “evil pricks.”) The band also blew up in a big way. The new sonic world they explored, drawing lines between such disparate reference points as indie rock, R&B and (especially on their new album, “Coexist”) dance, influenced the way critics assessed new R&B artists such as The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. And as such The xx have earned a Top 40 appeal — Drake called Smith “one of the most exciting producers I’ve ever heard,” enlisting him to produce the title track from last year’s “Take Care,” while Rihanna sampled “Intro” for her song “Drunk on Love” on last year’s “Talk That Talk.” Indeed, in the time between “xx” and “Coexist,” Smith came into his own as a producer, remixing songs by Adele and Florence + the Machine and an entire album by Gil Scott-Heron, and releasing the well-received “Far Nearer / Beat For” single under his stage name Jamie xx. That evolution was apparent on Friday, when I realized just how good of a club act The xx make. They reworked a number of their older songs, most notably “Shelter” — the band segued into the song from “Coexist” highlight “Swept Away,” and that song’s brooding rhythm cradled “Shelter,” originally featuring only Croft singing over Sim’s bass and her guitar. Smith mentioned in an interview that there would be clubbier tracks on “Coexist,” and while that doesn’t mean they’ve gone EDM, I found myself thinking a few times that night how much better this would be if we were all on a dance floor instead of an old, musty theater. But what hasn’t changed is the band’s secret weapon: the intimacy of their music and the allure it affords their live shows. There were times during the show when Sim and Croft would strum their instruments and approach each other so closely that I half-expected them to lock lips mid-song. And there were times when, standing in the crowd, I found myself closing my eyes for a few seconds to take in the sounds of Croft’s guitar lines or her and Sim’s exchanges echoing out through the fog. So when the lights came back on at the end of the night, and I saw a lone couple entwined in the middle of the crowd, their faces glued together, I couldn’t blame them. They probably felt something much deeper than I could understand.