Jamie xx review – twiddler on the loose

O2 Brixton Academy, London
Live, the south London producer’s determinedly low-key approach to dance music can end up short-changing his fans

The success of the Boiler Room video platform – in which a camera is fixed on a DJ for the duration of an entire set – is a testament to the world’s seemingly unquenchable fascination with the disco knob-twiddler. Since the series launched in 2010, the hunched and almost imperceptible hand movements of a legion of selectors have drawn millions of viewers. Their fans have proved equally compelling to look at, shuffling near the decks, nodding sage approval at each new cross-fade or adjustment of the treble. Essentially, it’s watching people watch a DJ; any dancing is incidental.

South London producer Jamie Smith is himself a frequent Boiler Room star, and the sense of the dancefloor as a place of observation as much as abandon informs much of his often outstanding music. Since he first appeared as one third of the xx – whose debut album of restrained electronica won the Mercury prize in 2010 – Smith’s flair for productions that appeal equally to the brain and the body has seen him collaborate with Adele, Florence + the Machine, Drake, Alicia Keys and Radiohead among others. He brings to the mix a love of UK club culture – house, drum’n’bass, garage, dubstep – to which he applies a cerebral, almost academic, flourish.

On Friday, Smith won another Mercury nomination, for first solo album, In Colour, released in June. This tour attempts to showcase it live. In a move that feels both audacious and quite annoying, he has decided not to seek out the company of any of the performers who worked with him on the album. There will be no Jamaican dancehall badboy Popcaan; no hottest rapper in the world, Young Thug from Atlanta, Georgia; no old pal Romy Madley Croft from the xx; no Kieran Hebden of Four Tet. The format is just Jamie, DJing his own tunes, and some other people’s too. Nonetheless, it’s a homecoming tonight: Brixton is where he first went clubbing as a teenager, and he grew up nearby. A partisan crowd fills the Academy.

Performers are often shy, but Smith has the body language of a man who has been forced on stage with menaces. Tall and narrow-shouldered, shaggy hair an undecided length, the 26-year-old sways and lopes behind a bank of technology, his untucked white shirt and rolled-up sleeves giving him the air of a recalcitrant sixth-former. During moments when not a great deal is happening musically – and there are quite a few – he performs the mating dance of the white British middle-class male, leaning left a bit and raising his right foot, then leaning right and raising his left. When the music gets exciting, which happens less, but to great impact – he goes into spasm, arms flailing upwards as if the tech has shorted and he has plugged himself into the mains.

Jamie xx live at Brixton
The Jamie xx album tour: ‘DJing his own tunes, and some other people’s too’. Photograph: Richard Isaac/Rex Shutterstock

When the Jamie faithful spot familiar motifs and riffs and snatches of vocal samples among the often glutinous instrumentals, they too fling up their arms. Smith loves the sound of the steel drum pan (or a treated, digital version of it), and when it clangs out at the opening of All Under One Roof Raving, the room is a field of hands. It’s an almost journalistic song that epitomises Smith at his observational best, using snatches of documentary interviews – “and we kept it UK!” – to build up a vivid, witty and at times moving celebration of British rave culture as it approaches its 30th year.

In Colour is a beautiful, richly innovative record, but some critics feel that it appropriates the edgier, pirate radio elements of club culture and turns them into an unthreatening kind of wallpaper. There will always be a snobbery in music about what is most “street” or “real”, but in a world where everything feeds off everything else, and originality is impossible, these arguments feel like a dead end. Certainly tonight there are moments from the album that seem too bland for the live setting, and with nothing much to look at there is occasionally a sense of the crowd feeling short-changed. But then Smith drops the summer hit I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) and turns the tide again.

After an odd interlude in which he plays songs by other people – wild adulation greets Ganja Smuggling by Eek-a-Mouse – Smith finally galvanises the night with the transcendent Girl, its memorable line “You’re the most beautiful girl in Hackney, y’know?” still fondly greeted this far south of the river. The 5,000 people here clearly adore In Colour. They deserve a more imaginative attempt at rendering it live.

Kitty Empire is away

Contributor

Tom Horan

The GuardianTramp

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