While the floor of Wonder Ballroom slowly became inhabited, I took a small amount of pleasure noticing the venue’s well worn disco ball. Its facade suffered a serious deficit of its reflective pieces and it swayed hesitantly as a damaged vestige of its previous glamour. For this evening, it was an appropriate accessory. Like that disco ball, both Xiu Xiu and Timber Timbre embody a certain erosive allure. Both play with the juxtaposition of beauty and unease, but their methods of doing so couldn’t exist further in the aesthetic stratosphere. While the latter is just fine with creeping people out, the former is intent on making their audience terrified. Gaging the majority response of the evening, most creeps don’t feel comfort in being terrified.
To call Xiu Xiu‘s music abrasive would be dismissive of its emotional import. The work of Jamie Stewart acts heavily as a psychological and societal coping mechanism and does it ever fucking sound like just that. Along with Shayna Dunkelman on percussion duties, Xiu Xiu created an environment that was completely unsafe for those in attendance. Many ran the risk of being hit by Stewart’s careening sweat and saliva or one of the many drumsticks he would sacrifice to the crowd once he determined they were no longer of use to him. Between songs, Stewart tested synth patches with a blatant disregard for their levels and each one was a jagged sawtooth that left the audience with the fear that he might completely abandon restraint and blow eardrums in a spectacular fashion.
Xiu Xiu’s music is predicated on violence and their stage show delivers on that notion in a different fashion from what shows up on their albums; with a depth and increased focus on percussive momentum. Bathed in the pallor of harsh red light and driven hostile by the din and clatter of large toms and warped cymbals, the audience played the victims that often frame Stewart’s songs. When a sharp and tonal melody would emerge, it was safe to assume that it would soon be destroyed, denying the audience any satisfaction. Stewart’s vocals would often rise into an unintelligible howl or cartoonish squeal without warning, causing a few to plug their ears and hunch down until it was over. It takes a certain level of adeptness to alienate a crowd as successfully as Xiu Xiu does, and that is core to their performance. Many in attendance came with the acceptance that it would be strange, but Xiu Xiu’s strangeness was rejected because of its ugly velour and lack of convenient consumption. In the end, the band left the stage after exhausting themselves and everyone was left to question the reason for Stewart’s repetitive vamp of the words “Black Dick.” Misunderstood but definitively not missed.
Redemption was found in Timber Timbre‘s dusky antebellum swagger. Placed just behind the beaming hues of blue and purple, Taylor Kirk and company played down their image for atmosphere. Opener “Grand Canyon” bathed the crowd in ease as the lights graced over the crowd, its swaying giving off the vibe of a Sally Hawkins dance attended by lost souls. For some of the kitschy novelty that the band’s work gives off on record, their live performance avoids that with a looseness and size surprisingly reminiscent of Neil Young & Crazyhorse. For their early work, they applied restraint as the lights shifted color, providing for a hypnotizing effect of feeling unstuck from time, bringing to mind the singer scene of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Their setlist was far reaching, hitting upon the skewered doo-wop of their self-titled work to the swamp-laden horror soundtrack of Creep On Creepin’ On and the fever dream western incantations of Hot Dreams. Accepting a bolo tie from an audience member, Taylor dedicated “Black Water” to his inspired gift giver, vocally improvising enough to prevent the audience from singing along. He redeemed them by inviting the crowd’s singing during their encore with a subtle and solemn performance of “Demon Host.”
Much like Kirk’s work, the performance was captivating if not spectacular. As an alternative to Xiu Xiu’s original although admittedly unenjoyable performance, Timber Timbre’s show felt awash in cliché like the tales of Pale White Riders and that ever present heart as Lonesome Hunter motif. Sure it’s creepy, but marketably “creepy.” Halloween music for the hip and informed. To look into the heart of darkness in Xiu Xiu, Timber Timbre felt somewhat two-dimensional by comparison but tonally enjoyable. It was a strange night of a strange dichotomy and as the crowd filtered out, that ailing disco still swayed unsure of itself as slightly damaged but still alluring as the night’s performers themselves.