On Saturday The xx brought the third and final leg of their self-curated Night & Day tour home to the UK, picking the Medieval grounds of Hatfield House as their chosen venue. Located a 10-minute walk from Hatfield station, the parkland was easy to find and well sign-posted. We found ourselves wandering through a well-preserved conservation area with many an ancient tree dotting the landscape, gnarly trunks twisted into intriguing shapes. With only two stages (main and smaller bandstand for the DJs) a few hundred feet apart the logistics were simple, and it made catching acts extremely easy.
First up on the main stage was three-piece band London Grammar, a superb opening act who announced they were playing their second ever festival to their biggest audience yet. Consisting of lead vocalist Hanna Reid, guitarist Dan Rothman and multi-instrumentalist Dot Major, the trio omitted intricate electronica laden with pounding drum beats and mellow synths, pulsating through tracks like 'Metal and Dust' and 'Hey Now'. Reid's voice was nothing short of stunning, delivering simple, honest lyrics of heartache and anxiety, and all the pain that love can bring. Her sound, power, and command reminded me instantly of Florence with the purity of Birdy. A unique and evocative performance.
DJ sets worthy of mention come from London based producer / musician Jon Hopkins, who mixed like a man possessed, intensely bobbing to beats and tapping away behind the decks with furious precision. His intelligent set consisted of immensely crafted instrumentals; experimental and emotive electro that took us on a journey through varying arrangements. From down-tempo and ambient to colliding and explosive, his range was vast and riddled with clashing percussive patterns reminiscent of the Chemical Brothers. At one point he looked up at the crowd and with a big grin spreading, received a rapturous applause from his audience. DJs don’t tend to be that interesting to watch but he was fascinating to observe – intermittently running his hands over his hair and face as if in deep concentration, incredibly involved with his music. At the end of his set Hopkins came to the front of the stage and in true gentleman style, took a big bow in response to the cheers; a great ending to a solid set.
One DJ who didn't seem as engaging was Sampha, perhaps because mid-way through 'Hold On', the host of the bandstand decided to rip his record and ask him publicly why he wasn't singing on his own track! The moment was pretty awkward to say the least, Sampha made his excuses and the host backed off leaving him to restart the track from the beginning. Needless to say at the end of his set he skulked off looking somewhat disinterested!
Following Sampha's subdued exit, Jamie XX pulled proceedings back on track with the stripped back low-fi sounds of The xx. Tracks were de-cluttered and composed with sparseness, dubby beats and well-constructed crescendos. After a subtle build Jamie dropped in a garage infused rendition of Brandy and Monica's 'The Boy Is Mine', a nice break in an otherwise hushed delivery that went down well with the crowd. Chopping Madley Croft's vocal samples and mixing tracks like 'Missing' with underground house, Jamie flashed an occasional shy smile from beneath his bobbing curls and just as he looked like he'd warmed up, he wound his set to a close.
On the main stage we also caught Polica, a highly acclaimed quartet from Minneapolis. Lead vocalist Channy Leaneagh danced as expressively as she sang, with cropped hair and a pixie-like demeanour she had an elegant, conservative look which hinted of a classical background. At times she would close her eyes and would drift off into instrumentals, floating around on stage before suddenly bursting back into the room with high-pitched vocalisation (raising a few eyebrows at the same time). Her lyrics lacked pronunciation which made it hard to tell what she was singing about, even more so due to digital distortion. Despite the fact the ambient synths and liquid baselines offered an uplifting respite, I found the use of Autotune a little tedious during the last few tracks.
Solange Knowles was the final act on the main stage before The xx. Whipping her dreads around while grinding and boggling to music that sounded like it was from an '80's soundtrack, she had fire and spark in her eye and clearly looked as though she knew what she was doing. Although I’m unsure anyone around me did. She had a great voice, however her overall image and attire just didn't seem to match up to the at times, provocative and slightly unnerving stage manoeuvres. Throw the music into the mix and I was left feeling slightly confused. That said her performance was full of gusto, even if it did leave me questioning the reasoning behind adding her to the day’s line up.
Overall the festival was well organised – portaloos were kept very clean, queues were acceptable and food stalls were aplenty. The weather was a bit hit and miss with the rain, which always makes a difference to an outdoor event with no cover. Mobile phone signal around the site was awful however, and with no posted set times anywhere we would have been totally lost if we hadn't downloaded them earlier that morning.
Around 9.30pm The xx transcended the main stage as darkness fell. They proceeded to executed a haunting barrage of exquisite soundscape upon soundscape of melancholic beauty, with opening tracks including 'Tides', 'Sunset', 'Missing' and a 'Fiction / Shelter' fusion. Romy Madley Croft's vocal softness was the perfect accompaniment to Oliver Sims' raspy undertones, as deep as the baselines he strummed, and their voices melted and harmonised with effortless perfection; weaving off-key notes and incredulously blended melodies, totally mesmerising the crowd.
Tracks were evenly balanced between Coexist and debut album XX, with alternative renditions of 'Reunion' and 'Chained' fused seamlessly along with their cover of 'Finally' by Kings of Tomorrow. Engineers had spent a lot of time prepping and setting up the lighting, their efforts resulting in lightning strobes, cloud-shrouded lasers and plenty of smoke to enhance the curious mystery that surrounds the pair.
Madley Croft appeared a little more wooden and awkward than her counterpart, often remaining still and watching Sim while he sang; but achingly soothing vocals made it hard to focus on much else. While she captivated the crowd, the looming silhouette of Sim moved gracefully with more confidence and expression, owned by his chords and gliding fluidly with bass guitar as if a natural extension of his body. The moments they chose to be still showed their understanding and respect for time and space, just like their poignant pauses between sounds – which made every single sound seem full meaning and purpose. The set was full of juxtaposes, including the way they would move in and out of each others frames - sometimes moving in sync, sometimes exuding individualism; their choreography was minimal and understatedly theatrical, creating more effect than impact.
Half way through the ethereal experience, the duo took time out to thank the audience for being there and say how much it means to them to be coming back to England. The applause grew continuously, and several times they tried to speak but were silenced by the over-bearing appreciation for their truly magical performance. If it wasn't for Madley Croft's minor slip-up, coming in late on a second verse, I could have sworn they were not from this planet; the whole set was completely celestial and spine-tingling. They delivered a healthy 17 tracks - just about enough to satisfy - and surprised us by starting the encore with the 'Intro' from the XX album, followed by 'Together' from the Great Gatsby, closing on a high with 'Angels'. By this point the audience had been well and truly seduced by every syllable sang, every emotion felt, every perfectly placed steel pan drum-beat; which made believing what we'd seen and heard had actually happened, very hard to do.
Electrifying stuff from The xx.
latest on this festival
festival home page
Night + Day 2013 review
video of the day