I’ve never liked the term art rock. Probably because of my own inability to grasp the value of the word as a descriptor of music. However, there really is no other way to describe the performances that took place at the Mohawk Wednesday night. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan and Xiu Xiu both blended performance art and experimental music to create profound sets.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan was just getting started as I weaved through the packed crowd of the Mohawk, making my way to the front of the stage. Having missed the setup and sound check, I experienced sudden and shocking sensory overload upon arrival. Posted at the forefront of the stage were large cardboard cutouts of clouds, and behind them was Y/ST, a six piece band in elaborate costumes reminiscent of various aboriginal cultures. Each member wore full face paint of black and white with red streaks. Beside the the band’s smallest member, Ruby Kato Attwood stood a large Japanese drum on a wooden frame. The band began a slow but powerful, churning beat that would define the rhythm of the night, and constructed an expansive wall of sound by use of keys, snyths, bass, and guitar. During the set’s most dramatic moments, vocalist Ange Loft, who towered in contrast to Attwood, emitted piercing screams.
The group’s energy was perfect. The performance was clearly a deep and thoughtful display of art, and the band members wore solemn expressions, but they never once came off as phony, and their approach engrossed the crowd from the first moment. Several times, Attwood, held up hand signs or waved paper fans furthering her association with Japanese culture. However, Loft’s feel leaned more toward Native American culture with her hopping, swaying movements. And in the background, another member wore a necklace that recalled the dark spells of a witch doctor. In a conversation with Attwood after their set, she implied to me that the cultural components were intentionally vague or universal to be inclusive. She hinted that anyone who identifies with a culture could connect with the performance. The band members themselves hail from Montreal, but come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. (By the way, read about the band’s name here.) Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s performance was exciting, emotionally staggering, and one of the best performances I have seen in years. They were a perfect opener for Xiu Xiu, a band that has exhibited unwavering commitment to its art over the years.
After the lengthy breakdown of the involved setup, Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo walked onstage to applause and wild screaming. There was a time when Xiu Xiu’s popularity waned, but the packed, fervent crowd of the Mohawk would never have betrayed that truth. Some fans in my vicinity shouted Stewart’s name incessantly and continued to do so throughout the set. It didn’t seem to matter either way to the lead singer, though he did give a slight smile a few times. Instead, Stewart plowed through his songs with total indifference to the crowd. I’ve seen Xiu Xiu in a room of seven people and in a packed room, and either way, they deliver blistering sets of evocative, ferocious songs. This phenomenon lends credibility to the claim that Xiu Xiu is a band totally dedicated to their artistic performances, regardless of the audience.
Xiu Xiu opened their set with a classic, “Fabulous Muscles,” which embodies all the darkness and beauty of the band. Stewart bobbed up and down manically, his eyes rolling back in his head as he shrieked his punchy, wobbling vocal lines into the mic. The set was an even mix of songs culled from various albums from Xiu Xiu’s extensive discography, including “Suha,” “Sad Pony Gorilla Girl,” and closer “I Luv the Valley, OH!” The band returned to the stage after their set for a one song encore, an epic cover of “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide. At the end of the song, Stewart was leaning into the first row of the crowd holding onto someone’s shoulder as she shouted frantically, “We are all Frankie!” repeatedly. Stewart has always integrated interesting covers and influences into his music and this was one more example of that. If you have a chance to see Xiu Xiu on tour, especially with Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, don’t hesitate.
Whether you love, hate, or couldn’t care less about Xiu Xiu’s polarizing music, their refusal to compromise their art commands respect. For now, it’s great to see so many people responding positively to the outstanding album Stewart released earlier this year. But the fact that it may not last should mean nothing to Xiu Xiu. As fickle fans come and go with each new editorial or review and musical fads rise and recede, Xiu Xiu continues their loyalty to their vision. Xiu Xiu is for Always.
All photos below by Bryan Parker and Holly Griffin. Click any image to open slideshow.