Xiu Xiu: 2 May 2012 - Washington D.C.

Xiu Xiu remains one of the most compelling live bands of its time.

Xiu Xiu
City: Washington, D.C.
Venue: Rock and Roll Hotel
Date: 2012-05-02

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”.

* * *


Fabulous Muscles

Beauty Towne


Smear the Queen



House Sparrow


The Fox & The Rabbit

Sad Pony Guerilla Girl


I Luv the Valley OH!


Frankie Teardrop





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.