- Vancouver, British Columbia - I discovered Xiu Xiu (pronounced Shoo Shoo) quite a few years ago with the release of their third album, Fabulous Muscles, which brought them some attention and remains one of their most popular releases. Now they are on tour promoting their eighth album called Always. I have to admit that at the very least, Xiu Xiu keeps releasing material at a consistent rate, so their fans don't have a chance to get bored. Not that they make the kind of music that gets boring anyway. They've always been very edgy and experimental. I've been interested to see how their music translates into a live setting so I decided to go see their concert on May 28th, 2012.
The Biltmore Cabaret is a little basement in Vancouver that allows for a very intimate setting between audience and artist. The atmosphere is dark, but cozy. There are even arcade games lining some of the walls which is a first for me. Most live venues I've been to just have wall to wall bars. Rather than blaring everyone's favourite indie hits over large speakers before the show, we were treated to some ambiance, starting with cricket and rain sounds. The stage was just a couple of feet off the ground so it kept the relationship between the audience and musicians very casual.
The first act that opened for Xiu Xiu was Father Murphy, a three piece band in the same vein as their headliners, but lacking something very integral to their music. I don't really know how to butter it up, but listening to Father Murphy was not a pleasant experience. I'll give them this though; they at least knew that their best chance at recognition was to open for a band like Xiu Xiu. I can't speak for the whole audience, but I found them to be just a series of unpleasant and abrasive noises. They seemed little more than a nutty faux-avant garde group who never had anyone walk into their rehearsals and give it to them straight: they're not going to go anywhere.
It kind of helped me see what it is that Xiu Xiu does right. They're an experimental avant garde band that makes its fair share of abrasive noises, but underneath it all they just seem so earnest. They walk such a delicate line and sometimes cross it one way or another, but have a decent output when all is said and done. Father Murphy doesn't treat us to a melody or any sort of linear song writing, and while bold, it comes across more as foolhardy. Some audience members applauded them so I'm sure they made some new fans. Like I said, at least they knew who to tour with and what kind of audience would be there.
The second opening act was Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, a gothic rock group with far too many members for the Biltmore's tiny stage. When they started to play, it was a relief on my ears. Their sound was a bit abrasive, but at least one could hear a beat and melody and they could sing. Well, one of the singers could sing... I'm not sure who was who. Upon a closer inspection, they became a very curious entity to me. There they were, playing their thrashing goth music, complete with sad clown make-up. But again, something was missing from their show so it wound up making me more uncomfortable than entertained.
And I think I worked out what it was. They didn't seem to be having any fun up there and they had every reason to be. They were decked out in costume, playing with noisemakers and shouting at the top of their lungs into the microphones and they couldn't even crack a smile. At the end of the show, instead of acknowledging that the audience was eating their music up, they just stood there for a minute and then left. Do you guys like playing music or not? I'm guessing it's all part of their persona that they're trying to sell us on and maybe that works or some people, but I don't buy it and I also don't like it. Why not have fun and interact with your audience or at the very least look like you're into your music. If you don't like what you're playing, why should I?
Finally Xiu Xiu came on stage. At this point in time, they've become a two-piece band. Lead still by frontman and song writer Jamie Stewart, by his side is a relatively new member Angela Seo who was recruited into the band in late 2009 after long time band mate Caralee McElroy left Xiu Xiu earlier that year. The two make a very visually appealing duo, Stewart being a well built white male who played the guitar and sung for the majority of the show, and Seo being a striking, young Chinese woman who played mostly everything else: synthesizers, drums, and anything in her bag of tricks.
The two are a mesmerizing combination, displaying a controlled passion. When they so desired, they were restrained, but at moments they would seemingly lose all control and thrash into the instruments like they made a new enemy that night. That's some of the appeal of Xiu Xiu's music; it can be very jarring. But what they do successfully is share their uncensored opinions and experiences, for better or for worse. I think they're a difficult act to get into because they deliberately share their pain with you in a most unabashed fashion and not everyone is comfortable with that. But for their fans, it is a source of comfort because it shows that not everyone is willing or able to hide from the pain in this world. Xiu Xiu takes that discomfort and turn it into art.
Jamie Stewart is not an amazing singer and I think any fan of Xiu Xiu knows that. It doesn't really matter because he's the singer and that's just how it is. His voice has the right passion and tone for the kind of music that they make. Live, he sounds just as he does in the studio so he doesn't really use any tricks to change how he sounds. Nor should he. It would mask the sincerity which, as I mentioned before, is the key to them working as well as they do. Since their lyrics are about such harsh themes, we need to know that he feels as strongly about them as he does. Plus, it adds to the theatricality of the band, which isn't a bad thing to have.
Though they were very active on stage, they weren't particularly interactive which I would say is a weak point to their show. Not that I blame them entirely. I wasn't a big fan of the audience of the show. I don't know if people know this, but bands usually have a planned set that they get through because that's what they have rehearsed. And sometimes they'll save fan favourites for the last to leave a good impression or to keep people in the show. So, I can't help but feel that it's insulting for people to yell out requests, like what the band have chosen to play isn't good enough. Xiu Xiu were good at shrugging it off for the most part, and it was a treat to see them actually crack a smile or two, but I think that there are better ways to handle hecklers, like talking to the audience and not really give them a chance to heckle. Though, I guess one could argue that it might remove some of the intensity of their music. I don't think I can disagree with that.
I don't know if I would see Xiu Xiu live again, but I am glad that I got to see them this time, if not just because they played a favourite song of mine, “I Luv The Valley OH!” I do like a lot of their music, but I don't know if the heavy atmosphere is really what I look for in my live entertainment. I think I prefer something a little more upbeat and gratifying. And it's not that I went into this show expecting that, I think I just needed to experience this to understand it. Nevertheless, they provided and intense and engrossing performance, loyal to their music and their fans.