The Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, which carries the nickname, “Lemp Arts Sauna” for its literal and figurative heat, is always the performing home to the band Xiu Xiu when they tour through St. Louis.
It was a Monday night, and an all-ages show in our humble city of pierced girls, mod boys, and plenty of Iron and Wine-style beards, for those who could grow them. With a crowd this young on a school night, it oughta all be over around 11 or so, right? Ha. Try again.
After headliners Matt Dill (trancy, experimental), Berlin Whale (who have a few dangerously catchy riffs and some obvious local fans), and Thao (decent songs + cute Asian front woman + Cat Power vocals + cowboy boots/ripped stockings + actual guitar talent = big chance for success), the headliner didn’t even get started ‘til after 11:30 pm. No doubt there were lots of angry Moms and Dads that evening.
As Xiu Xiu set up their own equipment, someone commented that they have a “clip” with regard to their sound (this non-musician is still trying to figure out what a clip is). “We live to clip,” singer Jamie Stewart said. “Since we quit drugs, it’s all we have.”
Experimental band in every sense of the word, Xiu Xiu’s assaulting honesty and homosexual leanings mate with operatic and pop melodies, creating the darkest musical tales never told. The band is so far off the radar screen of mainstream that one just has to praise them for not even trying to be a record label’s idea of Success. And that, of course, explains the dichotomy of why Xiu Xiu sells out every show they play in St. Louis, why they’ve been embraced by one of the coolest record labels today (Kill Rock Stars), and why both critics and listeners have been riding along their 5-or-so year career, watching this band mature and develop in the way every artist dreams and few manage.
Lyrically, Xiu Xiu isn’t casting poems to music… exactly. That’d be too easy. And any rhyme that creeps in from verse to verse is probably accidental. Xiu Xiu’s music is more like bleak little snapshots of insecurity, uncaged rage, and the saddest kind of passion within short-short stories of big-eyed boys and hurting girls long gone. All backed by some bitching cool sounds.
Musically, these multi-instrumentalists play on the stage like children (albeit gifted children) with sonic toys littered about the performance area. The audience respectfully piled into this living room setting as near as they could get to the band without getting in the way. Most stood entranced, occasionally allowing a moment of head-thrashing passion along with one of frontman Jamie Stewart’s soul-wringing screams, as he hit along with the guitar, cymbals or snare.
Meanwhile, the multi-talent Caralee McElroy handled sweet complementary vocals; a mounted squeezebox; some kind of cross between a recorder, a keyboard and a harmonica; standard keyboards and synth; shakers, whistles and more percussion. Devin Hoff, the bass player, picked up bells now and then, but his real show-stopping baby was what might be better described as an ‘electric neck’—sort of the fret board of a cello, upright and amplified.
With cymbals and snares in both front and back of the stage, three of the four band members had their way on some or all of the percussion at one time or another. But that didn’t mean drummer Ches Smith wasn’t kept busy: this dude was playing with freaking vibrations; balancing his drumsticks end-to-end, hitting the rims as much as the skins, and throwing his body across the cymbals for sudden stops.
But any Xiu Xiu show is really so much about the mesmerizing Jamie Stewart, isn’t it? Whether he’s talking to the audience between songs with a pink pick dangling off his lips, or gargling green tea between songs, Stewart is GQ-gorgeous, from the sweat that glistens off the short chestnut hair at the back of his neck, to his black Bauhaus T, to his cool brown bowling shoes. [ed.—And Fashionistas, it’s all in the detail, right? His guitar strap, white with aqua and silver metallic thread, sports a nice collection of pins these days. From top of the strap to the bottom: Hello, Kitty; a colorful parrot; a brass nameplate reading “Fist”; a sparkling pink skull, pinned sideways; and a needle-point of the Japanese panda bear “Pandapple.”]
Xiu Xiu fans know that Stewart’s vocals run the full gamut of emotion, veering between quivery weeping to a barrage of screams. He was a bit more subdued in this March 31st performance than we’ve seen him in other St. Louis shows, and we’re guessing he may have been fighting off some throat problems (see note on green tea gargling), although you wouldn’t have known it to hear him.
i tried hard to be good to you
i felt peace inside my head
it’s impossible to just be cool
please please please
don't don't don't
walk like my single hope…
This was one of the more intense moments, in the song “Clover,” when surrounding these words, Caralee’s dizzying flute and Devin’s bass notes danced in a euphoric depression:
we closed our lips and we called it our love
we swallowed a clover made of lead
it’s unmanageable to just keep on living
please please please
don't don't don't
walk like my single hope
i can only say it
so many times
After the new heart-blendering song, “Gayle Lynn,” the last track off the new album, the emotion was so thick that the audience let out a collective “Ahhhh” after the band’s sweet concluding silence. You just can’t plan that kind of magic.
In past live shows, Xiu Xiu has given us some memorable moments, such as their unique cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” With the terrific remake of David Bowie/Freddie Mercury’s great 1980s song, “Under Pressure” on the new album, one could only dream of hearing it live. Alas, it was not to be, without the Swans’ vocalist Michael Gira there to handle the Bowie-low notes. Still, many great tunes where gifted to us throughout the evening, with a terrific sampling of the deliciously noisy Women As Lovers [KRS] that no doubt generated some great CD sales after.
The night itself was a gateway to every sad, lovely and bittersweet memory and emotion tied to Xiu Xiu. It’s a cleansing, I thought, as I said goodbye to Jamie and Caralee, thanked them again, and mused of other Xiu Xiu concert nights: playing hangman on the sofa, the boy who gave Jamie a love poem, the black cat in the alleyway, of the heat and Pandapple and Clover. We’ve just ended a chilly winter. How does this band heat it up so beautifully?
Photo by Boone Stigal, editor of The Trouble With Normal http://thetroublewithnormal.tripod.com/