2 May 2012: Rock and Roll Hotel Washington, D.C.
One of the great joys in this modern life: standing in a silent room with a hundred people or so, while Jamie Stewart softly intones into his microphone, “Cremate me / After you cum on my lips, / Honeyboy.” Do you stand with your arms crossed and try to look unperturbed, since you do, after all, think of deformed penises most nights, anyway? Or do you smirk and try to catch the eye of the stranger standing next to you, making sure he knows you know this is all in good fun, just a detached observer winking and nodding at Stewart’s pink Nikes? Do you unabashedly sing along, thrilled to be in the same room as your hero, the most shameless chronicler of shame in contemporary pop music?
I’ve seen Stewart and Xiu Xiu live about a half dozen times over the last ten years or so, which averages out to at least one show per new Xiu Xiu record this decade, and the band remains one of the handful I will continue to see every time it passes through town. Those audience reactions are not the least of the compelling reasons to keep up with Xiu Xiu’s ever-changing live show—for a band that so well mines listener discomfort, the ambiguity of appropriate responses to its music, a live show should be an ultimate barometer of its success in evoking as many disparate reactions to its art as humanly possible. And it’s true, the band never disappoints in that regard; at every Xiu Xiu show I’ve attended, there are always at least a few people in the audience who apparently come just to sneer or mock Stewart and the band. Remember—these people paid for the opportunity to jeer. All things considered, it’s remarkable Stewart rallies himself for such intense speculation night after night, town after town, for months on end every tour. Even those whooping and yelling “Freebird”—seriously—at the stage during this show would have to give Stewart credit for that resilience.
Onstage, he puts on a stoic face, never bantering with the crowd (the almost painful silence between songs makes you think the atmosphere closer to an art gallery than a rock club, and I wouldn’t be the first person to liken Stewart’s songs to conceptual art). Perhaps it’s a sort of armor. A key element in Xiu Xiu’s music—perhaps the key element, the one flavor keeping the rest in balance—is Stewart’s lurking, deadpan sense of humor, black to the point of pitch. Xiu Xiu records, for every measure within them of despair, are very funny. None of that onstage. Or at least nothing of a tell, with Stewart’s pokerface intact from start to finish. He sweats, writhes, stomps his feet, but never smiles. Fair enough. That’s his prerogative.
But his voice—oh, the voice. As expressive as a voice could be, it was in particularly fine form this evening, moving from Morrissey croon to baritone bellow with ease in “The Fox & the Rabbit”. People often describe Stewart’s vocals as a “sticking point” for non-fans, but I don’t see how one could hear his voice and not want more. Honey and vinegar, in perfect balance. You would know it on record, anyway, but the live show brings out Stewart’s less obvious, and equal, talent for playing the guitar. Really playing it. Gearheads might be surprised to see him with a Gibson SG, such a full-throated rock guitar, when so much of Xiu Xiu’s music functions on fragility. Stewart shreds, bursts of noise and melody screaming from the instrument, transforming his passive-aggressive songs into plainly aggressive monsters.
The set focused in good measure on this year’s Always, a pop-heavy affair that sounded large and impressive in the room. Stewart played the hits, too, opening with “Fabulous Muscles”, hitting “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” near the night’s end, and closing with his best song, “I Luv the Valley OH!”, making a welcome return to his live rotation. He belted out the titular scream, where he’d previously taken to mewling it in a (likely purposeful) anticlimactic way, to perfect effect. Chilling, cathartic.
But the most interesting songs of the evening were two covers, New Order’s “Ceremony”, which the band recorded on Remixed & Covered (2007), and an encore performance of Suicide’s classic “Frankie Teardrop”. Stewart gave extra muscle to the New Order track, distorting (and almost destroying) its crystalline guitar work at choice moments, making an already perfect song somehow even more gripping. For “Frankie Teardrop”, Stewart let current collaborator Angela Seo handle the minimal instrumentals, while he took the mic onstage like an old hardcore hero, wrapping its cord around his throat and flailing like an epileptic. The song, already horrifying enough, dripped with electric tension from Stewart’s physicality. The choices of these covers seems prescient: taken together, they display Xiu Xiu’s strange balancing act, halfway between New Order’s superhuman pop instincts and Suicide’s cold, unsparing panic. It’s a highwire performance not for the faint of heart, and it’s hard to see how anyone besides Stewart could pull it off so consistently. Go see the man play. Please don’t ask him for “Freebird”.
* * *
Smear the Queen
The Fox & The Rabbit
Sad Pony Guerilla Girl
I Luv the Valley OH!