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LIVE REPORT: The xx With Strings In Brid
Sophie Coletta , September 21st, 2012 06:04

The xx bring the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra to the British seaside town, and are watched there by Sophie Coletta. Pics thanks to David Emery

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The last time I was at Bridlington Spa I was ten, participating in an inter-school orchestra competition. I was playing the violin, or rather pretending to play violin, at the instruction of my primary school teacher who wasn’t all too keen for all my heavy-handed enthusiasm. “Don’t press too hard on the strings, Sophie,” she cautioned me before we took to the stage, beneath the vast ornate turquoise dome that loomed above. Swirls of gold decorated the inside, whilst white figures danced around the rim, peering down at the beginning of the end of my brief and only spell as a musician. Tonight, the dome looks down onto a far different scene.

An excited heat rises above the audience; many of who have queued for hours along the sea front, clutching their golden tickets while the threat of over-capacity looms with step towards the entrance. A confused-looking man, who might have just wandered in from a coin hunt in the nearby amusements, pulls an imaginary thread from his denim jacket and asks if I know what time “this shit’s going down”. Behind him, a boy no older than eight and wearing a Kiss t-shirt, runs around, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his hoodie. Groups of teenagers sit in huddles on the floor, clutching plastic cups of lager and lounging back on their elbows.

So how exactly is this going to work? The xx are hardly known for the over-theatricality that often comes with orchestral collaborations with bands. Their two full-lengths have championed an austere, hollowed-out sound; sparse guitar licks, heavy slurrings of percussion, lyrics that make you feel like you’ve stumbled in on something private, something you shouldn’t have seen. Here, with the addition of an orchestra, any notion of onstage intimacy is immediately obliterated: the usual shadowy dry-ice-coated figures instead backdropped by a clutter of bodies and instruments.

For much of their set the band goes about their usual business with barely a hint that they notice what’s going on behind them. Jamie flits between his tools, Oliver sways, Romy gazes vacantly into the crowd, while the orchestra remains restrained, grasping their instruments patiently, often seeming more like audience members than part of the performance.

When they do join in, however, the transition from stripped-down delicacy to sheer power creates a concentrated intensity. ‘Fiction’ boasts great shudders of strings that offer such a different take on the studio version, it’s hard to believe they were born from the same entity, whilst a blinding Jamie percussion solo that prefaces ‘Sunset’ is much more subtly accompanied. There are still moments quiet enough for a long and cough to earn you a disapproving look from a judicious crowd member, but it would seem the general modus operandi of the orchestral presence is to coax and massage The xx’s recorded reticence into something more tangible; encouraging, but not overpowering their simplicity, and obediently falling silent when needed.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of this collaboration comes towards the end. Midway through ‘Infinity’ the usual crescendo builds, but this time the resounding “I can’t give it up”s are backed by swelling orchestration that wrenches up all the hairs on the back of your neck. The crowd begins to stir for a moment; heads begin to nod, feet tap on the wooden floor, and then it’s over, almost as soon as it began, the ripples in the pond reverting back to their stillness, the glowing of iPhone screens the only pinpoints amongst the darkened mass of transfixed faces. I nudge a girl filming intently, zooming and turning her phone at all angles every given moment. “You do know this’ll be on the Internet in a matter of hours?” She shrugs nonchalantly, raising her eyebrows in an ever-so sardonic manner. In the modern days of immediacy, it would seem, hours are just too long.