Last summer, I reviewed one of the more interesting records of 2019. X Ambassadors album, “Orion”. The review concluded thus: “X-Ambassadors are the antidote to all the bland X Factor driven tat. Popular just became rather fun, by virtue of these songs being no fun at all.”
I had mused in it, as to what “rock” music was. The band themselves had said they were a “rock” band, but it wasn’t, I reckoned at the time, “the way I defined rock music.”
Like everything, I suppose, it is all about timing.
See, if I’d seen XA live before I’d reviewed the record, there’d have been no doubt. This is not just a rock band, but it is one that lives up to the intriguing questions that “Orion” posed.
For 80 minutes tonight Sam Harris has the sold out crowd wrapped around his little finger. Like the frontmen of bombast, if he says jump, they jump. And if he drops the mic for a sing-song, then they scream it loud.
And yet, this is not a bombastic man at all. This is a band with a gentle message, a beacon of hope and a man who helps his brother, Casey, a blind man who plays the keyboards in the most thrilling way, to the stage without making a fuss. I notice this – and forgive me for the personal nature of this – because my brother knows when I need help too. I have walked with sticks all my life, and when we’ve been to things he never needs asking, he just knows. That’s the bond you have, and somehow it seems to show who this band are.
But no one is here just because the Harris brothers are decent fellas. Their proud parents are stood just behind where I am sat tonight, and they aren’t looking out on a packed crowd that adores the band because they are raised right, rather XA have songs that have connected thousands of miles away. Good ones, a couple of great ones, and some that are insanely catchy.
The one they start with, as it happens, “Hey Child” is the one that suckered me in last summer, it sounds better here. They follow it up with “Jungle” – and the riff that Russ Flynn, drafted in as a touring guitarist, plays in that one is enough to render any debates as to whether this is a rock band entirely pointless.
The one that follows, actually, is the catchiest thing you could imagine. “Boom”, well, bangs. It’s annoyingly brilliant, let’s put it like that, and speaking of brilliant, Sam Harris’ Prince-esque falsetto on “Don’t Stay” falls into that category with no bother whatsoever.
“Confidence” sees Emily Moore (who is superb on both and keys) add her backing vocals to the bits that K-Flay did on the record, and if it is undeniable there is a soul and R & B (both classic and modern meanings of the phrase) element to what they do then new single “Everything Sounds Like A Love Song” brings it to the fore.
“Gorgeous” is aptly named – but what you weren’t, maybe, expecting is the twin guitar solo. As Sam Harris battles it out with Flynn. This is a band you’d best not second guess.
In the set closer, the anthemic “Renegades” Harris stands on the barrier, meeting his people, but when they return for the encore it is for the fragile and brilliantly bleak “I Don’t Know How To Pray”. It isn’t lost on me either that the line “and God said” is followed by silence. That is bold songwriting writ large.
A show like this was always going to end on an upbeat note, and “Joyful” is just that, especially when Harris plays the sax outro with all the skill of Clarence Clemons himself.
Mention of the E-St Band is deliberate too, because they have just as scant a regard for styles as XA. That is actually far more evident in this live setting. They are already a pretty big deal in their homeland. They are getting that way here. This is music without boundaries. Crossover potential in every sense. And, evidently, in their element on stage. X Ambassadors have it all at their feet.