Uppers and Downers

the xx (top) and Friendly Fires (bottom)

the xx (top) and Friendly Fires (bottom)

I forget the actual wording, but as we waited for the bus my friend explained that if the concert we were off to see were drugs, it would be the equivalent of a downer followed by an upper. I don’t agree completely, but that is one of the more colorful ways of describing how odd it is to combine the xx and Friendly Fires. Both bands are relative newbies (one album apiece) from Britain, but the former tends toward darker dream pop while the later is decidedly dancey. Just look at the photo! I love both albums though, so I didn’t care.

Before I get to the concert, I want to echo my concert-going friend’s sentiment that Bottom Lounge is a great little place that doesn’t get its due respect. (At least I haven’t heard anyone beside the two of us talk about it.) The food is yummy (upscale pub grub at normal pub grub prices) and the beer selection is pretty wide (PBR tallboys, Bell’s on tap and Trappist beer by the bottle). This show was sold out, so when we showed up early for dinner, the front lounge on the lower level was packed with strangers sharing tables. The Volcano Room upstairs (with a slightly abbreviated menu) on the other hand was gloriously sparse. We even enjoyed a full period of Blackhawks hockey as we munched.

Come concert time, the music room (that’s an awkward name for it, but I don’t know what to call it) was packed. The xx came out to “Intro,” the (you should be able to guess) first song off the album and a simple drum and baseline number with no words, just an “ah-ah-ah” crooned over the instrumentals. This led into track 2, “VCR” (which made us believe we were going to get a straight read-through of the album) followed by “Basic Space” (which killed the straight-through idea). I enjoyed the set, but the sound balance was so far off that it was distracting; each bass drum thump pierced through whatever else was being played. Also, in a few songs the trio didn’t seem to completely jive; this might be a new band still honing the art of the live show, but I bet it has more to do with the fact that the album’s quartet recently became a trio and they are sill working out the kinks of that. Despite this, I still love the great sound of having both a female and a male lead singer.

After a break (complete with a quarter of the audience heading outside to grab a smoke), Friendly Fires came out with passion. From the first note of their opener “Lovesick” to their encore “Ex Lover,” the band’s lead singer spasmed about with some very entertaining (and contagious) dancing that looked a bit like an epileptic fit with some very determined, lip biting facial expressions. The performance was great, but what really made it for me was the collection of little flourishes that made the live versions different from the recorded works. We got glitzy guitar riffs, judiciously-placed cowbell clanks, souped-up synthesizer bleeps and (absolutely best of all) a trumpet and sax back-up duo. The energy stayed high and the dancing (my own and the rest of the crowd’s) reached its height during “On Board,” a song which for me is, for better or for worse,  perpetually tied to the Wii Fit commercial in which it features.

I hummed and whistled Friendly Fires tunes to myself all the way home and they were still on my lips this morning, a solid indicator that it was a good concert. I’d love to see Friendly Fires again some time — Can I get a new album followed by a new tour, maybe? — but I know I’ll be seeing the xx again in April when they return to Chicago with Hot Chip (another strange downer/upper combo).

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