The question on everyone’s mind was, “Where is X Ambassadors?”
The show at San Francisco’s Masonic on March 27 started like any other. Fantasy pop duo Savoir Adore opened with a mix of lush synth layers and light, funky guitar rhythms. The second opener, Seinabo Sey, blew the audience away with her vocal talent, from sultry low notes to glittering falsettos. She was also exceedingly humble and had the audience in fits with her humorous interludes, stories of annoying boyfriends and lost love. As she departed the stage, her presence lingered; in the silence as the lights came up, people turned to each other with impressed looks still coloring their faces.
Yet soon, everyone became aware that the stage had remained eerily empty after Sey’s gear had been removed. It seemed there was no sign of headliner X Ambassadors. Stage crews slowly set up all the PA mics up on the stage, stands for nonexistent singers, monitors for missing amplifiers, a skeleton of boom mics surrounding an invisible drumset. No announcement was made; people chattered anxiously.
All in all, it was another hour before the band’s tour bus — which had broken down earlier in the day — finally pulled into the parking lot outside the venue. As the first boxes and crates of gear began rolling out onto the stage, excitement rippled through the crowd, though it would be the greater part of another hour before they’d get to hear any music.
Everyone chose to wait, and when the band arrived it became clear why. There is an unmistakable, somewhat indescribable quality that clearly separates headlining bands (or soon-to-be headlining bands) from the rest. X Ambassadors, despite having released its debut album just last year, exuded that confidence from the moment its members stepped on stage.
Frontman Sam Harris and his brother Casey Harris created a dynamic energy on stage from the first downbeat, forming the core of the four-piece group. Sam Harris, who complemented his lead vocals with guitar and the occasional saxophone solo, had the freedom to explore the open stage at the Masonic and did so without hesitation. Bounding from edge to edge, he led the crowd in clapping and arm waves, allowing them sing back to him as he held out the mic. Meanwhile, Casey Harris, who is blind, played the keyboard with more movement and more passion than most other keyboardists put together, making his dancing arpeggios and technically challenging chord runs all the more impressive in their accuracy.
There is a way in which live music is an “A for effort” endeavor, where it’s the work done on top of the music production itself that resonates with a crowd. Energy and passion on stage translates into those shows where you get lost in it and the tight-pressed, jumping bodies around you in the pit rather than simply nodding along to the music.
This was almost that kind of show. Though powered by straightforward indie rock melodies, it was clear that lyrically, X Ambassadors’ music meant something important to their growing fanbase. Yet something was slightly off. That highly dedicated group was slightly too small for the venue size, all clustered around the middle front of the pit, forming a strange contrast with the simply curious fans around them. Part of this, and the slightly low attendance overall, might be attributable to direct competition via a large-cap Fall Out Boy and AWOLNATION concert happening the same night at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. You can’t fault X Ambassadors for giving it its all, but that much energy became mismatched once you stepped out of the pit to observe the room as a whole.
Where that all changed was in the final song, the instantly recognizable “Renegades.” Here, the full strength of the crowd engaged like a switch had been turned, and the continual motion of Sam Harris, who now jumped off stage and into the crowd, felt perfectly appropriate. It was, likely, what the show would have been all along under slightly different circumstances. X Ambassadors performs like a band over the cusp, with the presence to hold the audience and the confidence that they’ve connected with a fanbase. Now it’s time for the fans to catch up.
Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected].