Xiu Xiu – First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia Pa.

I arrived at the First Unitarian Church to catch most of Thao Nguyen with the Get Down Stay Down‘s set and was nothing short of impressed by her peppy acoustic numbers, smoky voice and vibrant personality. A member of the audience requested a song and Thao laughed saying, “Don’t worry — we don’t have enough songs to leave that one out.” I was surprised to have walked in to an already full Church, but after hearing just one of Thao’s cute and plucky numbers, I no longer wondered why it was tough to maneuver my way to the stage.

Just before their set came to a close, Thao broke one of her guitar strings and discussed a solution with both her band and the audience until she was offered an electric guitar from one of the other bands on that night’s bill. She seemed only slightly uneasy to delve into “new territory” with the electric guitar she held and promised the crowd they’d “make this as worth your time as possible,” which is exactly what they did. The crowd loved Thao and anticipated just as wonderful a set from headliners Xiu Xiu (pronouned “shoe shoe,” for those not in the know).

San Francisco based Xiu Xiu is an experimental indie band started by singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart, the only steady member of the band. The rest of the line-up currently includes Caralee McElroy on keyboards, percussionist Ches Smith and bassist Devin Hoff. Xiu Xiu sings about morose topics and draws from different genres including punk, ambient, folk and modern classical and is heavily influenced by the British post-punk scene. The quartet began their dynamic set by all playing percussion as they launched into their first song, which heavily featured cowbell. The next song was just as hard and powerful, with an electric upright bass and Stewart yelling. The venue was packed to the gills and the crowd was loving Xiu Xiu.

Each song was hard, tight, ambient and melodic, but the lack of banter amongst the band between songs was unsettling and made the audience feel uncomfortable. Xiu Xiu nailed great beats and created driving rhythms, but the only word uttered by Stewart other than what he sang was a “thanks” halfway through the set. To make up for the awkward tone set by the performers, the audience became very vocal in between songs, shouting “Xiu Xiu!” in their best raspy death metal voices.

A blaring whistle and jingle bells kicked off the next song as Stewart sang with a great deal of melancholy in his voice. The remainder of the set was very haunting and sad as McElroy played a somber flute and Hoff plucked and strummed the upright bass. Xiu Xiu seems to be a classically tortured band striving to make great music, but falling short of that during their live show. The lack of communication and sound between songs seemed to alienate the audience, evident as the crowd slowly dispersed before Xiu Xiu’s set was finished.

In an effort to alleviate the tension radiating from the stage, someone in the back of the room played a few pulls on a slide whistle, but it only worked for the few seconds of laughter that followed. A violently sad tune, on which Smith wailed and Stewart warbled, brought the crowd right back to uneasy. The last song I stuck around for (the awkward atmosphere was just too much to take), Stewart played percussion, driving home dynamic beats with a fast tempo; the songs with Stewart banging on the drum kit were much more dynamic and enjoyable than when he was brooding over his guitar.

If you’re a huge Xiu Xiu fan, be sure to catch them live, but for anyone else, I wouldn’t bother. I’d like to give the band the benefit of the doubt – maybe they’d received some terrible news just before getting on stage, or maybe they’d had a falling out that day – but the tension on stage was far too distracting to create an enjoyable show. Stick to listening to Women As Lovers on your iPod. That’s something I can get behind.

more @ flickr

Xiu Xiu: website | myspace
Thao Nguyen: website | myspace

[where: 2125 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103]

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