Jagwar Ma are loosening up as the O2 begins to fill. Ending with latest single, ‘The Throw’, the Aussie psych-pop band take an unexpected left turn. What sounds superficially hazy but still taut and poppy on record spins out into proggy and heavier forms. The distinctive opening riff – a whining, two-note affair – becomes something beastly and almost unrecognisable from where it started as the song takes on a convulsive form. A bruising dance beat makes for a powerful foundation and the three-piece are free to remould the song as they please. A welcome surprise from a band that previously seemed content with going through the motions.
Jagwar Ma’s sonic awakening may have played havoc with the sound-system, however, and a speaker stack stage right needs immediate attention. The lights comes up and roadies swarm in to correct the problem. People get drinks, sit down and start talking.
Eventually, Mount Kimbie come onstage, panicked, and rather worriedly declaring: “We have 15 minutes to blow your minds.” They are unsuccessful, but they clearly have the potential to do so. The bass-line of ‘So Many Times, So Many Ways’ is nimble and reminiscent of Peter Hook at his best but proves an intriguing centre to an underwhelming whole; they really deliver on closer ‘Field’, though. The song’s galloping percussion propels this truncated set to another level, imbuing it with a hyper-kinetic energy that is parlayed into the climax’s raw and masculine guitar line with a sternum-shaking dubstep beat to pick up the slack. It would be difficult to say that Mount Kimbie made the most of their time, but they most definitely leave on a high with a crowd ruing the venue’s technical difficulties.
The xx make sure to give their technicians an early work-out, as white light eradicates the front rows from view before the snake-charming riff to ‘Try’ eases into life. The trio, clad all in black as ever, take their positions and hundreds of cameras are raised in unison.
‘Crystalised’ is deployed masterfully. Bassist Oliver Sim wearily stares into Row Z as he sings the opening lines, and the first verse and chorus are teased out slowly, with only Jamie Smith’s tribal drums to distract from the aching tension. The song takes on a more recognisable pace in its second half, but the crowd is not safe and in no way guaranteed the instant gratification of their favourites songs. The band are quite simply toying with an audience that has hastily settled in their palms, and it’s wonderful to see.
While guitarist Romy Madley Croft is largely still, Sim is free to roam, lolling about with slow, cascading movements, extending and protracting his legs and leering into the crowd. Smith has a Great Wall of China set-up that covers most of the stage; he mans different sections of it for each song, finding the steel drums for the climax to ‘Reunion’ and making a running start in ‘Sunset’ with a house beat more suited to his work as Jamie xx, but more on that later.
‘Missing’ is forlorn, then skyscraping, then hymnal, then an astonishing combination of the three as Madley Croft lets out a restrained yet squalling riff and Sim looks skyward while chanting the song’s wordless refrain. He then puts down his bass and moves to the front of the stage for ‘Fiction’. With the mic cord wrapper around his shoulders, he looks more like a model than a musician and gives his best Blue Steel to an audience that he’s staring past. Madley Croft joins him when he retreats, and the childhood friends revel silently in the sparing notes of her guitar, sharing a moment of intense connection.
It seems they are bound unto each other and the music they have made while Smith is really allowed to do what he wants. The two singers are largely faithful to what they have recorded, but Smith takes the opportunity to freshen things up with new beats and time signatures, never allowing the set to become predictable. A band that depend on the subjective, internal experience of the listener as much as the xx do need to be something more live so as not to fail perceptions, and Smith knows that better than anyone. While their Electric Picnic set was sabotaged by the infinite arena and the thousand banal conversations that their hushed beauty could not hope to overcome, tonight they are unpredictable and lead a baying audience where they please.
Anyway, fuck all that because ‘Night Time’ has smoke lasers.
The blinding pyrex ‘x’ at EP was a great consolation that they couldn’t bring to the O2, but tonight’s light show is enthralling all the same and adds a layer of colour and theatricality to a band who may be too shy to be all that gregarious. The lights also provide a great complement to the Chicago house remix of ‘Shelter’ that we are treated to; but then: silence and a cut to black.
It’s a good 30 seconds before the jarringly sweet intro to ‘VCR’ is heard, but it is met rapturously. After the brief interlude, the whole mood and tone of the show changes. What was once unbearably sensual is now more relaxed and celebratory. The awkward smiles between the band are clear to see with the reactions to ‘Islands’ and ‘Chained’. The crowd is bathed in a golden light and applaud for what seems like an age before ‘Infinity’, which is brilliant as ever. The ‘Wicked Game’ of it all is played up and white strobes returns with every clattering beat of the chorus.
They return for an encore with ‘Intro’ and finish with ‘Angels’, which is quite simply heavenly and truly worth savouring. The arena is filled with a full spectrum of colours as that chiming riff is imbued by the fans at the xx’s feet. Smith’s drums are initially militaristic and then reticent as he watches Madley Croft sing the final lines. “With words unspoken / A silent devotion” and thousands feels what she means.
Smith takes over after midnight and switches up with some smooth soul at first before slowly working his way back to crowd’s beloved deep house, taking in a few welcome diversions along the way. It’s only a DJ set, so there’s no room for anything from the brilliant We’re New Here, his reinterpretation of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, or any of the more familiar remixes that helped prove his credentials, but it is a tight set filled with numbers that get limbs flailing and lips locking. Snippets of Madley Croft’s voice are the only overtures made to his day job, but we are of the night. The darkness feels infinite and sunrise can wait.