The XX Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON July 28

The XX Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON July 28
Nearly three years after performing on the same stage supporting labelmates Friendly Fires, the XX returned to Toronto as a very different band. Then, they had just lost guitarist/keyboardist Baria Qureshi, and were working out the kinks of becoming a trio, all on their first North American tour to promote their recently released debut album. Now, having won the Mercury Prize, heard their music score make-out scenes on Gossip Girl, headlined two Massey Hall shows and sold more than a million albums, the XX returned to a venue they will have outgrown by the time they come back.

With the contents of their recently announced sophomore album Coexist a mystery to about 99 percent of the crowd, the premature tour had the trio road-testing new tracks. Walking out to a stage filled with smoke and near-blinding back lighting, guitarist Romy Madley-Croft, bassist Oliver Sim and percussionist/producer Jamie Smith were virtually faceless throughout the 70-minute set.

The shadows and fog, however, complemented the music's warm, nocturnal intimacy, adding some drama to the frail beauty of set opener, new single "Angels." Following that up with crowd favourite "Islands" allowed Sims to introduce his gravelly croon, which won rapturous applause. He took over lead vocals with "Heart Skipped a Beat" and intriguing new song "Fiction," driven by lonely pianos and thumping electronic drums. In total, the XX treated fans to six new ones, the most jaw-dropping of which was "Reunion," a hushed duet that sinks into an ether of twinkling guitars and Smith's percussive mix of bass drops and steel drums -- yes, real ones.

Smith, an enigmatic figure in the rear by choice, kept the back end alternating between whispery and club-friendly, dialing up the booming rhythm section for set closer "Swept Away" with the deafening blast of a beaming cymbal. Out of respect, Madley-Croft worked in a brief cover of "'I'll Take Care of You," Smith's collaboration with the late Gil Scott-Heron, which no doubt had most people thinking of Rihanna and Drake.

Note-perfect performances, an unrivalled ability to create closeness among a thousand-plus and a light show catered for arenas wasn't all that made the XX's live return so triumphant. Credit the front-of-the-house sound engineering of wizard Rik Dowding, who has rescued them from their bass rumbling troubles and transformed the band into one of the few that could one day rival his other client, Portishead, one of the greatest live bands around. And with another album under their belt, there is a very good chance the XX will be up for that daunting challenge.

To see Exclaim!'s XX photo gallery, courtesy of Fil ZuZarte, head here.