LIVE REVIEW: Xiu Xiu @ The Chapel

Xiu Xiu, touring with members of Swans’ live ensemble, played SF’s The Chapel on 5/28. Photo by Shomei Tomatsu

“Loner,” Thor Harris murmurs matter-of-factly, temporarily seizing the mic from Xiu Xiu frontman, Jamie Stewart. “Lonerrrrrr.” It’s a fitting accusation to thrust into this particular sea of transfixed eyes, as it’s just about halftime and the notion of being little more than jumbled limbs in a heaving crowd has been hastily forgotten. Not long after Xiu Xiu’s sonic slink into the ether, the average schmuck is far too agog to notice the quivering mass of those that are surely sweating on arms and breathing on necks. No, we’ve collectively embraced a healthy dose of social apathy, and we’ve got Stewart’s yowling to thank for it. So when Harris calls out for the loner, we silently respond en masse. Of course, he’s simply reading the first few lines of “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy,” the fifth track off of Xiu Xiu’s latest album, Girl with Basket of Fruit. But it feels as if he’s addressing each one of us directly, rubbed raw by Stewart’s aching bellows and the throbbing bassline of guest bassist Christopher Pravdica, best known as the longstanding bassist of Swans.

The Chapel (a former funeral home in the San Francisco Mission District) possesses the warmth and coloring of an internal organ. Indeed, the Suspiria-red walls fractured by Blue Velvet-hued lighting creates the sort of glow one might discover if they were to slip through a pulmonary artery. However, Xiu Xiu appear to be right at home. They graciously open with perhaps their most well-known song, “I Luv the Valley OH!” and Stewart ensures that that shriek of an OH! is just as gloriously cathartic as it is on the recorded track. Following this nod to their 2004 album, Fabulous Muscles, the trio eagerly launches into their latest, including the aforementioned “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” (sadly performed without the intoxicating vocal contributions of lyricist Angela Seo), “It Comes Out as a Joke,” “Scisssssssors,” and the album’s namesake track.

Wasting no precious energy on mindless banter between songs, Stewart commits to the performative purge: jumping, jerking, and writhing onstage. His characteristically precarious wail travels from bellowing roar to splitting shriek to curious quack to seductive whisper and back again. In short, the man is seriously well-equipped. The instruments Stewart samples over the course of the show span an equally compelling range (including a slide whistle and what appears to be a makeshift maraca), and his cowbell clanging and cymbal slamming during “It Comes Out as a Joke” is absolutely no nonsense. Thor Harris, Xiu Xiu’s congenial drummer (like Pravdica, known for his work in Swans), also scrambles standard instrumental roleplay. In addition to his spoken word-esque reading of the “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” (which nonchalantly closes with “And I am kind of a dopey-ass goofball weirdo so I can get why some people don’t like me”), Harris bashes a gong and samples wooden claves. Pravdica, too, is not confined to the bass guitar. One would be remiss to forget his brief affair with those castanets during the encore performance of “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” (A Promise, 2003).

In pathetic sum, language seemed pretty superfluous by the time I stumbled out of The Chapel, lulled into an awe-bitten, catatonic state. I haven’t even mentioned the lolling lament of “Get Up,” (FORGET, 2017), the absolute blessing of “Clowne Towne” (Fabulous Muscles, 2004), and Stewart’s literal use of snapping scissors as percussive party to the performance of “Scisssssssors.” Fellow affected attendees sucked on cigarettes outside the venue, speechlessness the rule. Given the glaring limitations of the English language, perhaps it is best to refer now to the absurdist bio supplied by Xiu Xiu for their show listing, excerpted from “Ice Cream Truck” on Girl with Basket of Fruit:

“It could be handfuls of reds,” it begins, followed by absurdities that vacillate between the disturbing and the delicious. “It could be mescal in a bottle & baby on a boob, hair dyed blonde for nobody, nobody move.”

It could be that the act of writing this review was an exercise in futility.

It could be that was the best twenty bucks I ever spent.