Euphoria, zest, pleasure, elation, bliss, rapture, eudemonia: the taxonomy of joy is the continent of sad people. Having gone through countless phases of blues, they are sensitive to every nuance of joy. Upon hearing the phrase “happiness is a warm gun” and taking it at face value, they are less intrigued by the warmness of the gun than by the presence of a pistol in a supposedly cheerful context. But from time to time, on occasions that seem to find them walking on water, an incredible, larger-than-life spectacle brings every font of mood together—in every size and every color—to a place where loss embraces liveliness, despair holds the hand of optimism, merriment kisses sorrow, and crying is closer to delight than pain.
A concert can be one of those spectacles. Attended mostly by a large crowd, it is an event where hormones happen to meet and burst. The venue is a realm of senses and sensations, the energy so palpable that after being contained inside their bodies it rubs on every surface and occupies every space available, until the performer steps onstage and the energy is released all of a sudden. Then bam! An instant full moon. “Enthrallment” best describes the intense feeling of rapture after a concert, the kind that typically lasts for weeks and months, but something that sentimental fans cherish for a lifetime. No sooner has the band left the stage than life has sent a message seldom identified, that urge to continue existing, that desire to live longer, that lust for similar experiences.
Listening to an album is an endeavor that requires a degree of fondness and seclusion. Hearing songs live, however, has grander considerations: it is the culmination of one’s attachment to music. Concerts are short reveries with a lasting effect. But more than being a geographical arrangement and a thoroughfare of emotions, they also raise an economic concern: money has to be spent in exchange for a good time, and it’s usually an amount that’s hard to dispense. In a Third World context, the surrender of money is the hardest. Nevertheless, any kind of passion is tainted by commercialism, so what else can a crazy fan do but yield to poverty, suffer the consequences, and grab the chance? What kind of experience and memory can wash away the ill taste of commerce?
In the case of the three-piece English band The xx, the answer isn’t clear at the onset. Their songs are distinguished for minimalism, the lack of big choruses and loud arrangements, but with fans shouting the lyrics and upsetting the quiet atmosphere—frankly, missing one significant point of being there—one can only try to overlook that hitch and focus instead on the music being played, made more intense by the blinding lights and the incredible vibe of impatience. One is not there for privacy, so it’s pointless to hope for a self-absorbed kind of intimacy similar to what the band’s two albums offer. But one must be there for surprises, and members Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith, all dressed in black and hardly smiling as they perform, have prepared something strange and unexpected.
Song after song, there seems to be a variety of foreplay and other sexual dynamics happening. Romy and Oliver’s voices are precise, smooth, and vulnerable—the way fans expect them to be—but their stares, solid and penetrating, are focused on making severe impressions. The effect of this execution is immense, which draws cheers and expletives from the crowd. Oliver, for instance, would gaze before the audience and grip everyone with his eyes. He does so much eyeball fucking, as people on the Internet would say, and he has mastered it damn well. His pair of eyes is an extension of his bass guitar, doing all the flirting that his instrument cannot do, the receivers of his gaze feeling it, spellbound. It turns out that this display of attitude from the band—cold, biting, reserved, unmoved—is a staple of their shows, somewhat reflecting their withdrawn personalities.
But it doesn’t stop at the bloody gazes. Romy and Oliver insert some choreography, dances and routines that highlight the sentiment of the song, and in some instances illustrate the rift between a couple. There is nothing complicated about these movements, but since the reputation of the band is one of simplicity and starkness, the result of such motions is mesmerizing. In many instances Romy and Oliver would move their faces closer to each other, look at one another, and pause, like they do in “Shelter,” which features a trippy introduction and a suspenseful hanging of its guitar riff. They are unmoved by the excitement around them and are constantly playing with the audience, and the audience, in turn, loves to be played with, ready to give in to new memories about to be created.
Tall and brooding, Oliver provides the sumptuous main course as far as erotica is concerned. He is a natural tease, and the sight of his hair slicked back only adds to his seductiveness. During “Night Time” he steps forward, stops for a second, and gyrates like a stripper. He swoops with his guitar and slithers across the stage, releasing the disco inside him. At the start of “Fiction,” he stands in the center without his guitar, plays with the microphone cable and hangs it around his neck, bends, bites his lips, shows the tip of his tongue, sings to Romy’s guitar, and twists every muscle in his lower torso. Without removing any article of clothing, he elicits screams, and he bows as often as he can.
Hearing them live, one can’t fail to notice that the songs manage to carry the gentleness of the studio versions. Through what seems to be a ghostly transmission of mood from London to Manila, the band is able to magnify the emotion contained in the compositions. Personal favorites from the first album are total crowd-pleasers: “VCR,” “Heart Skipped A Beat,” “Shelter,” and “Islands” are welcomed by a mix of shrieks and tears. At some point in the concert, one tends to wonder: Why does it feel that those three musicians onstage are mere holograms about to vanish any second? And if they are just avatars, how come those heartbreaks they are sharing seem to feel real and tangible? Where is that eerie ambiance coming from?
“Crystalised” finds footing on a different arrangement, lacking that incongruent exchange of words in the bridge, but its throbbing bass line kills any possibility of disappointment. The band reaches its loudest on “Infinity,” with its clash of instruments and drum machine, seeming to remind everyone of concerts being opportunities to dance and disappear. By the time “Islands” is finished, the lights turn off dramatically and Oliver raises his bottle of beer and tries to speak. With the yell from the crowd getting louder and louder, he and Romy are unable to control their smiles any longer. Oliver says “he wasn’t expecting it” and mentions that one of the staff is celebrating his birthday, but with his accent and the noise, only a few seem to comprehend.
Two things, in their extent and mundaneness, are able to sum up the night. The first is that captivating moment of hearing “Intro,” those magical three minutes needless of words, only humming and a dose of youth, furnished with a hook that describes life at its peak. There is that paranoia brought about by the song’s shortness, short but complete, and how that hook is repeated for consolation, telling that life is going to be good again but it will soon end anyway, and not even the people who created it can bring it back again. “Intro,” without sarcasm, is The xx’s greatest accomplishment yet, the philosophical undertones of which are hidden in the exquisiteness of its melody, and when the song comes to life in a huge space, there is reeling: dizziness, drunkenness.
The second is Jamie’s presence. Silent at the back, his hair tousled, never dancing or frolicking, Jamie is busy tinkering with some buttons and playing the drums, seeming to be in a different concert in his head. He is there, part of it all, yet he shows signs of distance, as though he was placed there for the purpose of taking everything in, of looking at a side of the world that is alive and well, of writing observations. And indeed there is one observation that stands out: that concerts allow people to see themselves in a state of unique happiness, subjecting them to an overwhelming strain of sensations, which, like therapy, is expensive but reassuring. In many flashes of exhilaration, they show those smithereens of oneself that can be formed again, those cells and tissues still capable of feeling euphoria, zest, pleasure, elation, bliss, rapture, and eudemonia. In the age of iPhones and iPads being raised and blocking the view of the band— the kids worried about missing memories, unaware that they are missing the most important of them right then and there—it’s comforting to know that there is still a way to make oneself feel infinite: immeasurable, boundless.
Photos by Richard Bolisay. Follow him on Twitter.