I’m a sucker for a deep throaty vibrato. Jamie Stewart is both a delicate and turbulent singer whose emotionalism borders on a thin lined edge you can almost see. Touring in support of their most recent album The Air Force, Xiu Xiu played many newer songs such as “Bishop, CA,” “Buzz Saw,” and “Boy Soprano.” Like on album, you can almost sense a despair of one crying out and that boundary between singing and crying out is a little difficult to decipher in the darkness sometimes.
Although Xiu Xiu, a three piece from Oakland, has been compared to bands like Joy Division, I think this is somewhat limiting. There’s a whole side of Jamie Stewart that is almost a little like Sufjan Stevens, when he’s singing about the likes of John Wayne Gacy Jr. for example. Although Stewart has more of a bassier vibrato than Stevens, the resemblance is present.
Even in Xiu Xiu’s most chaotic moments, there’s a melody that revolves around all of the drums, keyboards, guitar, and autoharp. Live, they used some samples as well as a sort of claustrophobic mess of drums and other instruments centering them up front in the middle of th stage. The two were so close together you could sense a real strong bond amidst the fragile turbulence. Perhaps the most breathtaking moment was when they performed their cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” which is a supposedly rare occurrence. Stewart’s hushed vocals made the cover nearly unrecognizeable and more like something they could have written. It truly brought out all of the beauty of the song.
I had seen and enjoyed Xiu Xiu’s set a little over a year ago at Intonation Music Festival (before Chicago became spoiled enough to have a separate Pitchfork Music Festival), I felt the smaller indoor venue fitted them much better in the way that personal moments shared between less people are. The audience was captivated overall, which further gave them a real sense of stage presence. If you aren’t familiar with their music, you can hear Xiu Xiu’s songs by visiting their MySpace page You can also read more about Xiu Xiu on Wikipedia
As for openers, Xiu Xiu’s own drummer Ches Smith played a set that rivaled Xiu Xiu’s in length but lost the audience overall. Combining drums and xylophone, sometimes playing both at once, Smith titled himself Congs for Brum and played a set which attempted a balance between his frantic drumming and the soft melodies he created with the xylophone. If it had been a twenty minute set, it would have been mesmerizing and we would have longed for more. Yet, the longer Ches played, the less patient many were for Xiu Xiu’s set.
Fellow openers The Dirty Projectors, a six piece from New York, were also a little unusual in style and sound. Several times while listening, I had to ask myself, “What exactly am I hearing here?” The band would easily go from standard indie rock fair to soul to prog and back again. There were so many elements in their music that it felt both diverse and a little schizophrenic. With keyboards and some really nice backup female vocals, the passion emitted was undeniable. My one complaint is that I thought the synthesizer sounds, although used scarcely, should not have been used at all because it lessened the songs overall. Listen to Dirty Projectors on MySpace
Renee-Louise Carafice also played some very eccentric songs. Dressed up like a thief, she played with seven bandmates who were all dressed up as dogs. Her songs performed live were fantastic, emitting an instability not unlike that felt emerging from Jamie Stewart’s own throat at times. Like him, she’s experienced a great deal of pain in her life and on her MySpace page, she mentions how her songs were inspired by time spent in a mental health facility in New Zealand. She was accompanied by, amongst other instrumentalists, both a violinist and a cellist which gave the songs a true enchantment.
Approximate setlist for Xiu Xiu: