Xiu Xiu | Cactus Club | 4/26
The uber driver clearly didn’t want to chit-chat. She had her radio tuned to 88.5 and it was picking up a rerun of THE GAME. I didn’t realize this was still possible since they made everyone get a digital converter for tv but I also don’t deliver pizzas any more. When you drive at night for a living you find all kinds of interesting things on the radio. I miss it sometimes; nowadays I hardly ever venture from the presets. And uber drivers don’t even have to get out of the car. And this car actually smelled good, not at all like years of accumulated pizza vapor. But you do have to have all those other people in your car all the time. I’d go nuts.
The first thing that happened after I got my wrist stamped at Cactus Club was Chris Rosenau walking up and giving me a hug. It’s a good thing they have Rosenau opening tonight, I thought. Gonna need a big dose of joy to insulate us from the OCEANS OF PAIN that are sure to follow. Actually I wasn’t sure what to expect out of Xiu Xiu. The first time I’d seen the band was at Logan Square Auditorium in 2006, when the crowd was almost all young freaks and Dirty Projectors opened and nobody knew who they were. I was in love with THE AIR FORCE and I knew a couple other songs from mixes people had made me, and totally unprepared for how wild and moving this band was gonna be onstage. When they did Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” I thought the whole crowd was going to fall shattered onto the floor. Inexplicably, I didn’t see them live again until 2014, opening for Swans at Lincoln Hall.
That show barely counts, though, because Jamie Stewart was having some kind of severe issues with their voice that spring, so rather than mount the show they intended, that opening stint for Swans turned out to be just Jamie, and just noise. Like, a constant drone of ear-splitting, unrelenting noise, perhaps the sonic equivalent of having psyched oneself up for a tour supporting one’s critically-acclaimed new album only to have fate rob one of one’s most crucial instrument. I think of myself as a pretty adventurous listener but this was too much even for me. I was up in the balcony and so didn’t have a very close view, but from that vantage point I could swear Stewart looked furious the entire set, as though the sound was emanating straight from their brain.
In the intervening years, Xiu Xiu have continued to make great albums—including an entire album of music from TWIN PEAKS, which would’ve kept my fandom alive all by itself even if I hated the rest of their output. However, their new album, IGNORE GRIEF, leans heavily into atmospherics and theatrics and noise, and I suspected Xiu Xiu might be playing mostly new material on this tour, which would make for a dark and disturbing set even by their standards. Hence my extra relief at the prospect of seeing Taffy Puller first.
This duo project (Rosenau on guitar and Jon Mueller on drums) is exactly what you’d hope for from these two longtime collaborators—unless you were hoping for songs, that is. As a fan, you feel like you’re getting a direct glimpse into their raw creative process, because it’s all improvisation, and no matter how many times you’ve seen them with other projects, you know they’re going to pull (no pun intended!) out some kind of new accessory or tone or approach to their craft in this setting. So, Rosenau’s distinctive juicy guitar blips and loops filled up the Cactus Club back room while Mueller provided a series of uncomplicated drum themes. This set wasn’t as loose and noisy as the only previous time I’d seen them (last year’s Seventh Stanine Festival , also at Cactus); it was more deliberately segmented, and Mueller’s playing bordered on industrial at times it was so forceful and insistent. The first half of the set seemed a little disjointed but there were multiple moments of improbably powerful cohesion during the last 10-15 minutes, featuring some of the growliest guitar licks I can ever recall hearing Rosenau play.
The only other time I know of that Xiu Xiu played Milwaukee was also opening for Swans, at Shank Hall in 2012, making Wednesday night at Cactus possibly the band’s first headlining show here in its 21-year history. I guess that’s why I hadn’t seen them more times; they don’t exactly pop up at festivals. IGNORE GRIEF is arguably their least-accessible album since their very early days, and that’s saying something; although Stewart’s heart as both a pop songwriter and a crooner comes through at times on every album they’ve made, the unifying quality running through all their music would have to be ‘confrontational’. There’s not a single Xiu Xiu song I could’ve played for my grandparents, y’know? My mom, okay there are a FEW, but she wouldn’t have LIKED them.
It’s not that I object to having my face gnawed off by inscrutable avant-garde music but Xiu Xiu do have a lot of great SONGS and to my delight they played a career-spanning set of ‘em Wednesday night. Two of the first three numbers were from the new album and let’s just say there wasn’t much dancing going on in the sold-out crowd during those heh heh. I think they only played one more new song after that. The band is currently a trio: Stewart sings and handles guitar and an array of keys, electronics and percussion; Angela Seo has a similar setup but no guitar, and newcomer David Kendrick has taken over the drum seat. He does have big shoes to fill; Xiu Xiu’s longest-serving drummer, Ches Smith, is flat-out one of the greatest in the world, and the band’s 2019 tour featured the inimitable Thor Harris (also of Swans). Kendrick however has an impressive resumé that includes Devo and Sparks, two bands which if genetically fused into one might not sound all that dissimilar to Xiu Xiu.
Observing the band at work, my mind reeled at how exacting rehearsals must’ve been. Rhythm is often incidental in Xiu Xiu songs; for the most part, everyone has to be keyed in on Stewart, and I swear Seo barely ever looked at them while playing, so I’m still a little mystified. Kendrick seemed born for this assignment; virtually expressionless throughout the show, he seemed at once a force for stability and on the verge of becoming unhinged. Even Ches Smith in all the times I’ve seen him play never whipped out a massive square of sheet metal and started whapping it against his cymbals. Where the hell was that thing this whole time? Like at any good noise show, it was hard to take your eyes off any of the musicians.
I chuckle, calling this ‘noise’, thinking about how infectious it was, despite the songs not necessarily sounding much like their studio versions. How when I first heard this band in 2005 I could feel my brain stretching, and now we’ve all been relentlessly shocked out of our wits by non-art. Let’s have Xiu Xiu back for the Republican National Convention, they can bust out “I Luv Abortion” and nobody will bat an eye. And why? Because their songs…are just that good. Transfixing.
If there was a zen moment it was “Falling”. I’d shoved that hope way back into the unreachable parts of my memory, that they’d do any TWIN PEAKS stuff. Of course we DID just lose Angelo Badalamenti AND Julee Cruise last year GAAAAHHHHH. Xiu Xiu toured doing a complete TWIN PEAKS set back in 2018 and I didn’t go. I can stop kicking myself now.
After that it was nonstop hits. And I mean not only covering New Order but also playing “Ian Curtis Wishlist”. Ending with “Girl With Basket Of Fruit”, title track of my favorite album they’ve put out possibly since THE AIR FORCE. It might be the most FUN Xiu Xiu album. Fight me! Xiu Xiu albums are not fun. Still, I’ll be damned if Jamie’s not trying to elicit laughs sometimes, even if you immediately feel bad about it. It’s all about forcing you to ask yourself why you feel the way you feel, not judging anybody EXCEPT yourself. If you’ve made it this close to the left end of the radio dial, you probably don’t need this explained. Regardless, Stewart did not come off as a tortured actual person onstage. They exuded the passion and professionalism of a performer at the top of their every game—guitar, voice, presence. In the parlance of recent times, they killed it, and we all were shook. I sure HOPE it was fun.