With weeks to go, I saw that the show did in fact sell out, but after a heavy month of concerts last Rocktober, things have been quiet in the Record Cell, with little new music of any stripe to listen to. Why not see this band that my wife first mentioned to me several years ago when their first album was released. I’d say she knows me pretty well. So I gambled my $30 and change and last night I went to the packed house to see what the kids were into now.
I’d heard of the opening act Austra when they played Asheville in the Fall of 2011 as part of the Moogfest lineup of that year. They didn’t seem like hip hop, so I figured they’d be a safe bet. Being that The Orange Peel is a tight ship, the band came out at 9:00 p.m. sharp and proceeded to make me very glad that I attended. The lineup was keys, live drums, bass with the bassist triggering drum machines and vocalist Katie Stelmanis doubling on second keys. It was a rich, slightly gothic, but definitely not morose sound. The Toronto group brought to mind another long time Canadian synth band fave, The Spoons. Not as upbeat, but the clean density of their sound which blended programmed and live percussion so remarkably well is what reminded me of earlier group. And in a good way. The band’s music had that CFNY ’82-’84 vibe. Yes, it was that good!
Vocalist Stelmanis brought an impressive singing voice to the evening’s music as well. Apparently her operatic training was put to good use as she used her soprano voice powerfully well, and skirted the zone of shrillness that lesser lights blunder into. I was reminded of Sinead O’Connor, but with a boatload of training and control that was most impressive to hear live. I enjoyed all of their music but one track in particular had some serious Münich style Moroder sequencing and the toughness carried the group over the top and slapped a big smile on my face. Not just mine either since there were clearly people at the sold out show just to see them playing. Their 40 minutes zipped by and I made a mental note to buy their album if I ever have a surplus of funds to allow that in the future.
Afterward, what seemed like a small army of techs broke down Austra’s gear in what seemed like record time. Nevertheless, it remained for the full federally mandated 40 minute between set break, before The XX hit the stage at 10:20 p.m. The gear that took up the stage was a wide expanse of keyboard tech, and many various percussive units, both stage left and stage right – from syn-drums to steel drums. I was shocked to see that for the live stage the basic trio of the band were unaided by sidemen. Romy Croft played guitar with Oliver Sim on bass. Both sang the material equally, often in duet. Jamie Smith, all by his lonesome, manned the full width of the stage, playing an impressive array of keyboards, samplers, and percussive devices; often ambidextrously! watching him trigger samples with his left hand while driving a ride cymbal with his right was most impressive.
My only exposure to their music was when OMD covered their song “VCR” as the B-side to “History Of Modern [part 1]” and at the time, that struck me as a natural OMD song except for the fact that it was written by other people. The full scope of their sound was very impressive to one such as The Monk. Grasping for comparisons, the evening was a nimble blend of: Tracy Thorne/EBTG, Cocteau Twins, Echo + The Bunnymen… with an injection of club dynamics foreign to all but third phase Everything But The Girl.
Ms. Croft sounded and even resembled Tracey Thorne, but her guitar tone was hitting a sweet spot somewhere between Will Heggie of the Bunnymen and Robin Guthrie of les Cocteau Twins. Interestingly enough, that was the tone she used for the entire concert with no elaborate pedals in evidence. Given that I was about seven rows back from the front in the SRO crowd, I didn’t see anyone’s feet too much but I don’t recall her ever tapping a stomp box of any kind. It lent a thread of cohesion to the music which ran the gamut of post-shoegaze dream pop to near trip hop.
Bassist Sim made quite the effort to humbly thank the crowd for their [understandable] ardor; repeatedly thanking them for the response. While I thoroughly enjoyed Austra, it was clear that The XX have been around longer and have progressed to another level. It was abundantly clear that this night was my one shot at seeing them in my home town. If they deign to play there again, it will be held in the local 3000 seat venue. So I savored the evening as it unfolded, secure in this knowledge and enjoying the beauty of the tension between Croft’s demure introspection and Sim’s more extroverted role in the band.
Meanwhile, Smith’s busy handiwork was punctuated by the dramatic lighting based on three projection units sending out sheets of white light while the entire stage was punctuated by the occasional strobe, both white and colored. If a complete virgin to the charms of Austra and The XX had a wonderful evening, then there’s no reason why any of you who may actually have and enjoy their music on your devices should pass them up. The headliners are moving up to the next level quickly and their third album will see them headlining venues fare larger than the 1,100 capacity club I saw them at last night. If this is what the kids are listening to, than I guess the kids are alright.
The XX/Austra North American Tour
JAN 31 | RYMAN AUDITORIUM | NASHVILLE
FEB 2 | TABERNACLE | ATLANTA
FEB 3 | FLORIDA THEATER | JACKSONVILLE
FEB 4 | THE BEACHAM THEATRE | ORLANDO – SOLD OUT
FEB 5 | THE FILLMORE MIAMI BEACH | MIAMI
FEB 7 | THE RITZ YBOR CITY | TAMPA
FEB 8 | HOUSE OF BLUES | NEW ORLEANS
FEB 9 | HOUSE OF BLUES | HOUSTON
FEB 11 | AUSTIN CITY LIMITS LIVE AT THE MOODY THEATER | AUSTIN
FEB 12 | AUSTIN CITY LIMITS LIVE AT THE MOODY THEATER | AUSTIN – SOLD OUT
FEB 13 | GRANADA THEATER | DALLAS
FEB 15 | CAIN’S BALLROOM | TULSA – SOLD OUT
FEB 17 | RIALTO THEATRE | TUCSON – SOLD OUT
– 30 –
Romy is definitely a Tracey Thorn devotee! She has to be! The opening track of Coexist is so very much a stripped down, new millenium TT/EBTG sound. I have to agree that she also channels some of the best of Will Sargent and Robin Guthrie, two of the 80’s best guitarists. I’m looking forward to the show!
Austra is very interesting. I’m hoping though – and your review gives me such – that her live vocals are a bit more interesting than on recording. she can fall into that basket that a lot of other female electro-pop singers are stuck in at the moment. I do like the more gothic undertones of Austra though.
Echorich – Austra definitely made fans here after their 2011 Moogfest appearance. Part of that may be down to Katie’s links to the LGBT community and the native A-she-ville crowd, but there were males pumping fists triumphantly in the air at the appearance of certain songs in their set. We all could have had more than a typical opening set, but hey. They still only have a single album. Any music I enjoy getting a strong response in Asheville – that isn’t Jam Band Rock or bluegrass is a cause for joy.
Echorich – I finally got “Feel It Break” last weekend and I heard what you mean about the vocals on the album proper. It almost make me want to recycle this title as her abuse of vibrato is very, very annoying in ways that didn’t happen live for me. Still undecided there.