Sound track: The xx and Austra

Photos by Margaret Hester (Pictography by Margaret), for The Orange Peel. View the full photo set here.

Canadian pop-noir outfit Austra returned to Asheville on Wednesday, Jan. 30, playing an opening set at the Orange Peel. You might remember Austra from their standout performance at 2011’s Moogfest. If what that particular show calls to mind is the glamorous onstage style of the band members, their Wednesday night apparel left something to be desired. Austra’s performance, however, did not.

At the center of the band (figuratively and literally) are vocals/keyboard player Katie Stelmanis and drummer Maya Postepski. And, while the two other players filling out the sound are skilled, Stelmanis and Postepski alone would be enough.

The whole band bounced in unison, a singular organism tossed on the series, dark waves of “The Future.” Stelmanis’s voice contains so much power, and yet her control over it is as graceful as her undulating hand gestures. At times, Postepski’s drums were thick and slow — both her playing and Stelmanis’s vocal enhanced with effects that deepened and doubled their output. Postepski played like she was exorcising demons, all whipping hair and sharp edges. On “The Choke,” the keyboard mimicked a trumpet, resonant and brassy.

Some intros were boldly ‘80s reminiscent, recalling Phil Collins hits and Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” (aka the Beverly Hills Cop theme music). Austra ended with “Lose It,” with Stelmanis’s vocal high and light, and the keyboards following suit. It was a standout moment in a set full of standout moments.

Headliner The xx appeared on stage after a markedly long setup time. Though the band is just three people (guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim, with a third member added on drums for their Coexist tour), they travel with a massive light set up (rumored to take up two trucks). But when Sim apologized for the delay, all British accent and charming abashedness, it was impossible to hold a grudge.

Plus, the xx opened with “Angels,” led by Croft’s gorgeous vocal. Where Sims’s singing voice is bedroom-y and warm, Croft’s is large and rich, but also vulnerable. And the band’s songs are catchy — though not in the way “catchy” suggests. Hooky songs tend to bounce and snap. The xx drifts on a warm sea of soulful grooves. This is music that the listener basks in, relaxes into. And yet, the audience was already singing along on the first song.

Most of the songs were sung as duets, though not in an “Islands in the Sea” sense. Croft and Sim move their voices around each other. They’re collaborators, but in big, spacious songs like “Fiction,” they also manifest an intimacy. Their on-stage chemistry is palpable.

“Crystalised” is musical morphine, in the best sense. Narcotic and lush, swirling into a sigh. It’s broken into movements, a slow dance at first, and then built on the foundation of dance beats. Croft announced a special version of “Chained,” worked up just for the Coexist tour, but the band’s performance of “Reunion” was one of the evening’s high points. The soft focus of the music was sliced through with needles of light and parsed with dance beats at its half-way mark. Electronic in its construct, the song comes off as something far more organic, more moonlit — the auditory twin to a night swim.

More melancholy and plaintive was “Night Time,” set to blue and then pulsing green lights. Heavy bass and clapping percussion added to the moodiness, but really, moodiness and blanketing washes of tone and texture underscored the full set.

The one complaint voiced several times throughout the evening was that it was a slow and quiet (thematically, not volume-wise) show. But this is what the xx does, and the complainers were surely not acquainted with the band’s two albums, because the live show was a true (if not carbon copy) rendition of the recordings. Interestingly, the xx played more songs from their self-titled debut than from recently-released Coexist, but they seem to be all about giving the fans what they want. Including a three-song encore.

Here’s the full setlist:

Heart Skipped a Beat
Night Time
Swept Away

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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