The first time I saw Xiu Xiu was on the recommendation of my Swedish internet friend of Ethiopian descent who I knew as Gabriel. He had pointed the way from my Who-obsessed pre-teens to the Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, New Order, and Joy Division of my late adolescence, all through the completely ridiculous forum of the Strokes message board. It was the summer of 2004 and I had just graduated from high school. I was going to Ohio State in the fall, my older brother was back home from his second or third year in college, I had my first job working as a Civil War re-enactor for AmeriCorps in Delaware, and my internet friend Gabriel told me to check out a band called Xiu Xiu.
I think my family was still using NetZero at the time, or maybe we had finally put the money down on unlimited dial-up. Regardless, downloading music took forever and I feared debtors' prison if I ever dared to steal a track.
So on I went to Xiu Xiu's website, where they had a minute or a minute-and-thirty-second samples of maybe 'Crank Heart,' definitely 'I Luv the Valley OH!,' and probably 'Clowne Towne.' The music was led by Peter Hook-style melodic bass lines, driven by drum machines and southeast Asian percussion, adorned by synths that bubbled and hissed before turning massive and dissonant in the blink of an eye, all led by a vocalist caterwauling and whimpering through half the songs. It was immediately decided that my older brother and I should go see this weird-ass group in Philadelphia. I don't think I'd ever been to a show without my parents before, because I had grown up so timid and cloistered, and my first independent venture into the world of live music featured a man in some emo 'do barking like a deranged chihuahua in between bursts of synthesized noise and the most delicate, explicit, and conflicted odes to human sexuality I'd ever heard.
I was transfixed.
It was the first time I ever purchased music at a show on the strength of the show itself.
Not much changed last night at the Windup Space, except I got it on vinyl now because I'm fucking 31 goddamn years old and I [ed. note: rarely] write for an alt-weekly.
The openers were also different. I can't recall, but I'm sure Baltimore bands Lent and Halloween Tres weren't there when I saw Xiu Xiu in Philly, or the University of Delaware, or Philly again, or at Little Brother's in Columbus, OH. That's a shame, because Lent, "not the belly button kind," were a powerful and presumably intentionally hilarious four-piece playing instrumental post-punk prog or something like a parody of Baltimore's Horse Lords. Featuring what one can only assume were two Michael Stipe impersonators, some dude in a trucker hat, and that lead guy from "Office Space" but in the leather jacket of that lead guy from "The Rocketeer," Lent laid down some Flipper-esque sax parts over busy drums and keyboards plus a rhythm guitar. The repetition essential to their pieces was hypnotic and the timing just right to keep me interested and entertained.
Halloween Tres embraced a goth and post-punk aesthetic similar to the one that Xiu Xiu sometimes employ, but instead of identifying specific targets, Halloween Tres seemed to take on masculinity as their subject. The music alternated between eerie synths and amelodic rhythm guitar, but it was usually underpinned by driving bass. The word "man" featured prominently in multiple songs, and the singer underwent a metamorphosis from an older femme figure wearing a headscarf to a thrashing idolator of Iggy Pop and the Birthday Party.
Xiu Xiu's own approach to gender was more variegated. Xiu Xiu's principal songwriter, primary vocalist, and general Xiu-iest Xiu of all, Jamie Stewart, took the stage in a black shirt that read "Teen Angst" in a florid typeface. Shayna Dunkelman accompanied Stewart (Angela Seo was absent) on the caustic-in-its-quiet 'Petite,' a song built around whispered vocals, plucked guitar, and a synthesized string part, displaying for all the power of silence and smallness to open their set.
A man behind me initially responded "Huh?" as the song started and concluded "Whoa" once it finished. I agree. By the third song into the set, Xiu Xiu unleashed their newest club banger, 'Wondering,' a song that has actually achieved the oft-threatened merger of Stewart's hysterical femme vocals, skewed pop sensibility, dance beats, and screeching noise into something that more than, say, 10,000 people would be into. It provoked much dancing from a crowd that was also ready to mosh as they did during the title track off "Forget," 'I Luv Abortion,' and a cover of ZZ Top's 'Sharp Dressed Man.' As with the best Xiu Xiu covers, 'Sharp Dressed Man' was warped while Jamie Stewart's warbling inflection emphasized the ugliness of rape culture embedded in the classic rock radio staple.
Before the last song of the set Stewart said, "The last time we played in Baltimore was 2011 with the worst lineup that ever existed." A woman in the crowd shouted back, "It was 2012—I was there!" A man, "You made up for it tonight!"
"We sucked balls," Stewart said, referring to the previous show in 2011 or 2012.