During the five days of CMJ each year, it’s not at all unusual to find yourself at a venue you wouldn’t normally set foot in. I even remember going to a show at Arlene’s Grocery once, which obviously isn’t something I really do. But during CMJ, you go where the bands are. And since there are so many of them, they’re literally everywhere. You just have to accept that you’ll probably have to go somewhere other than Bowery and make the best of it. But this was almost too much: The NBC Experience Store? At Rockefeller Center? At 2pm on a Friday? Well, for the chance to see this year’s most talked-about band of the festival without having to brave the long lines at any of their nighttime shows, yes.
Word of the show spread early yesterday morning, and because I knew deep down that there was absolutely no chance of me even attempting to get into either of their nighttime shows, I decided to take the long subway ride up to Rockefeller Center to see what it was all about. I got off the F train at the 47-50th Street stop, which is confusing. Did you know there’s, like, a mall down there? So weird. So unpleasant. I eventually located the NBC Experience store, a lovely little shop where you can buy Friends t-shirts and Michael Scott’s coffee mug. No sign of a band playing just yet (I was about 45 minutes early), but I did spot a pretty sweet Bayside Tigers t-shirt.
The show, it turns out, was to take place upstairs at the NBC Experience Cafe, which consists of a counter where they sell coffee and frozen yogurt. It’s generously lit, with all sorts of bright colors everywhere you turn. Not exactly an ideal spot for a rock show, and even less so when the rock band in question happens to be as unabashedly dreary (looking and sounding) as the xx. As 2pm approached, the room filled up with a strange mix of people—some obviously in town for CMJ, other obviously not.
The band appeared at 2 o’clock on the dot, three quarters of them dressed in black from head to toe. They didn’t say hello, didn’t crack a smile, didn’t even so much as talk to each other. You could hear a pin drop until the moment they started playing. They’ve got their blank stares down pat, refreshing for such a young band. The sound was about as good as you’d expect the sound to be at the NBC Experience Cafe, which is to say not good at all. The bass guitar was clipping, as was the drum machine, and the vocals were really loud. All the better, though, to call attention to Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Simm, whose haunting, confident voices and deceivingly affecting harmonies are the main draw here.
In the middle of the set, Croft broke a string, and the song they were playing began to fall apart, slowly but surely. They looked stunned, nervous, and it looked like they might just pack it in. She cracked her first smile of the day, holding the broken string above the neck of the guitar, looking around the room, seemingly for someone to tell her what to do, or at least to tell her it was ok. And it was: they had two more shows to play later on, both at proper venues, where the lights would be low and the audience would be drunk and distracted enough not to make the situation far more awkward than it needed to be.