“Whereas some bands have the problems of losing their fan base due to things such as the band ‘selling out’ or the fans themselves just growing up, Xiu Xiu has the problem of losing fans to suicide.”
—Chris Burden, performance artist
On the day that New England’s iconic foliage was at the peak of its bold color change, avant-garde drama queens Xiu Xiu cleverly one-upped Mother Nature with a little change of their own. The band played an unusual mid-afternoon set, touting dark chamber rock that’s as serious as it is insane.
Xiu Xiu’s already flavorful catalogue was bursting with more spectacular intensity than the leaves, thanks in large part to the band’s touring line-up: mastermind Jamie Stewart (criminally, mercilessly serious—traits that the audience members nearly wet themselves with glee over), cousin/co-conspirator Caralee McElroy (who looked like she wanted to murder someone every time she picked up her melodica), and Ches Smith, a marvelously spastic, experimental percussionist who played a set of his own whacked-out compositions before the main event.
By including a live drummer (a component the cousins have routinely eschewed on past tours), the players added a startling layer of warmth and mystery to Xiu Xiu’s already elusive and ethereal sound. With Stewart also banging away at a snare/cymbal kit, the dueling percussion at first verged on wretched excess (Animal Collective, Liars, and even Radiohead have been doing this for a lot longer, to better effect), but in the end that extra dollop of schizophrenic thumping turned out to be invaluable, aiding the older songs by bloodily reconfiguring them. Xiu Xiu’s live show is nothing if not impressive in its monumental scope: no one else does what they do.
Not every mid-day concert crowd would agree to an in-depth, experimental analysis of interpersonal domination, sadomasochism, and incest, but the under-21 intellectual set of Cambridge was more than game. After being forced to dodge a small army of surly belly dancers and the threat of a mediocre pumpkin kibbee in the venue’s upstairs Middle Eastern-themed café, attendees were required to languish through a set of indescribably banal white frat-guy reggae “jams” from curiously mismatched opening act the Dirty Projectors (who might want to think about a little restraint when it comes to the use of maracas).
After what seemed like an eternity (but was, in reality, only about twenty minutes or so), Xiu Xiu set up their equipment and roared through the first three tracks from The Air Force—“Buzz Saw”, “Hello From Eau Claire”, and “Boy Soprano”—with a visceral urgency that doesn’t appear on the studio takes.
The stage was littered with a carefully assembled variety of instruments (multiple drums and cymbals, keyboards, harmonicas, a xylophone, and an autoharp that Stewart cradled like a little newborn babe) that gave the band a huge arsenal to wield over the excited audience. For their part, the fans were impeccably polite: a sensitive young chap in the crowd shouted out “thanks for playing” after Stewart demurely went fishing for compliments from them. The layers of instrumentation were accented with wicked bits of drum-machine chaos, and every time a song threatened to get pretty, the band bruised it up with an abrupt hit of sampled, headache-inducing madness.
After the third song, the band blew up a bass amp with their antics, and it smoked though the next few numbers. “Fuck it,” quipped a nonplussed Stewart, who sped forward with detached focus. McElroy noted, somewhat unimpressed, that only the night before, they blew up two bass speakers. “Bishop, CA” was the show’s musical highlight—each member seemed to surrender in the thick fog of the primal rhythms and assaulting guitar squalls. It was one of the set’s rare moments; they all loosened the reins a bit and came off a little less severely.
As a parting gift (or maybe as a punishment for being too eager), Stewart trotted out a priceless show pony for his devotees, a ridiculously over-blown/acridly hysterical cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”. The song puttered along at what could generously be called a lethargic snail’s pace, Stewart’s trembling whimper accompanied by the xylophone (a grievous combo that may very well be employed as a weapon of torture during times of war, but nonetheless is ballsy and deserving of attention). After a complete, reverent hush spread across the room, the audience pleaded in vain for an encore from their elusive objects of desire, even as the band began to take their equipment apart.
They looked as though they might be pretending to ignore the shouting, clapping people right in front of them, and the poor kids were met with that familiar coolness that creeps up on the band’s studio work: “We don’t do encores,” a chilly McElroy quipped as she wrapped up her cords, much to the chagrin of the fans. Loyally, the crowd remained totally enraptured by Xiu Xiu even as they were being denied the goods.
Lucky for Stewart and his crew, they pulled off one of the most inventive, complex afternoons of music that those kids are likely to see. Who needs an encore when you’re given a performance of this magnitude? The band’s peculiar, distinctive brand of melting down is going to keep aficionados coming back for more, encores or no. And every now and then, too-keen crowds really do need to be put in their place. Thank you, Xiu Xiu, for showing us all how it is done properly.