The xx live at the Armory in New York: On the scene

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There may not be many new tricks in the modern concert handbook (
not good ones, anyway) but it was hard not to feel like a part of something special last night at the xx show at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.

The British dream-pop trio’s run in the historic New York space certainly defies typical rock-show math: 11 nights, each with two 50-minute performances for an audience of no more than 40 people, in a room so enormous (the main hall is 55,000 square feet) that it looks scaled to aircraft carriers, not humans.

In fact, the actual performance space was surprisingly small—at least at first. After being ushered in through a side door into a cramped basement room, the evening’s forty golden-ticket holders were led like obedient hostages through a winding series of sheetrock-dusted corridors and into a modest square that looked like the war room of a Bond villain, with its rubberized floor and black-clad minions. The minions, of course, were the band: Identically poker-faced, angularly coiffed, and completely silent as the audience filed in and were instructed to stand around the perimeter.

“Should we all take our clothes off now?” A friend leaned over and whispered. And it did have a little bit of a Wicker Man-meets-Eyes Wide Shut vibe, as if we were about to witness either a virgin sacrifice or a wild goat orgy. But then the first notes of music rang out: the spare, shimmering guitar line of the band’s 2012 single “Angels.”

Singer Romy Madley Croft has a voice that builds mystery on the barest bones; all the air in the room seemed to hold still as she intoned over and over, “They would be as in love with you as I am.” Her bandmate Jamie Smith almost never looked up, his whole concentration focused on the motherboard of sound affects and steel pan in front of him. But bassist/frontman Oliver Sims fully embraced the theater of it: He paced the square like a panther, looking occasionally like he might break into full-on capoeira; he sidled up to Croft and slunk away, wrapping the microphone cord around his neck; he paused dramatically, then flung his body over his instrument; he was putting the “performance” in performance art.

In moments it came off a tiny bit silly, but there was something refreshing, too, about his sincerity. And it played to the synergy of every element in the space—the pulsing lights and projected images, the beautifully spooky quality of songs like “Basic Space,” “Shelter,” and Missing,” the way Croft’s and Sims’ vocals twined together and pulled apart as they sang them. (At one point, Croft stood alone for a new song that repeated the lines, “The show is wasted on you/So I perform for me.” It is not wasted, girl. Promise.)

When the sheets finally dropped away to reveal the full hall, with its wide wood planks and God-scale cathedral ceilings, we restrained ourselves from clapping like children at a chocolate factory only because it seemed rude to disrupt the band’s reserve with all our embarrassing enthusiasm.

As the last chords of closing song “Chained” dissolved, brisk attendants gently pushed the audience towards the exits and the band stood silently, watching each guest step out of the square. The little wisps of smoke that trailed us out into the New York night felt as dreamy as it should; the last evidence of a concert without crowds or camera phones or credit-card jostling at a bar. Just the magic of a really, really good show.

The xx shows at the Armory continue through March 29; tickets are currently sold out.

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