I had the chance to see The xx some years back when they weren’t very famous and it was easy to get a spot near the stage. It was at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk, one of the loveliest, most laid-back music weekends I’ve ever had the good fortune to attend. But I didn’t see the band. I can’t recall why but I suspect I was off in some corner of a field eating an assortment of fried goods, sipping luke-warm lager and making daisy chains.
So when The xx announced a special residency at the Manchester International Festival, I wasn’t about to be distracted by burger and chips or botanical jewellery. And thank god I wasn’t, for this was unlike any gig I’ve seen before and am unlikely to see again.
I don’t whether it was by design or accident but the MIF organisers built up a pant-wettingly degree of anticipation for what was billed as an “intimate environment” in a “60-capacity room”. On a day when the mercury topped 30 degrees, I made my way to the main entrance of Victoria Station where I, and 59 other ticketholders, were corralled into an orderly queue. I was prepared for a wait so I’d fished out a booklet from the pile of “stuff I’m going to read one day”. By the time we were ushered into the bowels of the station, I was well versed in the UK’s independent bookshops, and rather gladdened by the knowledge that Eastbourne boasts a indie called Mr and Mrs Doak’s Bumper Bookshop.
Once we descended into the welcoming gloom of a warren of subterranean tunnels, we were kept in another holding pattern. I glanced around and noticed that the young lad next to me displayed an ankle tattoo saying simply ‘ROCK’. What was on the other foot, I wondered? Face? Hard? Cake? This will remain forever a mystery as, shortly after the clock struck seven, we made our way to a low-ceilinged white room and came face-to-face with The xx.
Now I don’t know about you, but this is the first gig I’ve ever been to where the band were waiting for the audience. The three musicians prowled up and down a square, sparse and slightly sunken stage, giving rise to the rather unsettling feeling that we were watching predatory animals at a zoo. Everyone shuffled nervously around them, glancing at their neighbours as if in search of the proper etiquette. Do we stay standing? Should we avoid eye contact? Is it OK to clap? Yes, yes and no came the unspoken reply.
And then it began. Unobtrusively, gently, ethereally – Romy Madly Croft launched into one of the band’s best-known songs, Angels. From that moment, and until the end of the short set, we were all madly in love, love, love with The xx.
Writing this the next morning, the event has become somewhat of a blur. I know that I stood in a small, faintly claustrophobic room with a group of strangers, all of us swaying to the beat of a series of heartbreakingly beautiful songs. I know that, at some point, the ceiling started to rise until, towards the end, we were standing in what I later realised was the unfinished Chetham’s concert hall. Some five storeys high, this skeleton of a building was as perfect a venue for the stripped back vocals and harmonies of The xx’s catalogue as the stark white room had been. I also know that I was mesmerised by the unbroken grace of Croft and Oliver Sim, a symmetry made possible by a lifetime of friendship. And I know that I emerged from that auditorium, blinking into the evening sunlight, feeling profoundly moved as only music, in the right setting, has the power to do.
The MIF has excelled itself this year. From a star-studded Macbeth in a deconsecrated church, to an emotional reading of a Shelley poem in a former Methodist chapel, this festival has given proof, if were proof were needed, that on the sixth day god created MANchester.
Review by Helen Nugent
What: The xx at the Manchester International Festival
More info: www.mif.co.uk/event/the-xx