By Phil Pucci Photos by Liza Cox
May 14, 2015
On Tuesday night, the Pixies played in Charlotte at Ovens Auditorium. The house lights dimmed at the ripe hour of 9 o’clock, and the audience, many of whom were still filing into their seats, hesitantly offered a roar for the legendary Boston alt-rockers. Black Francis, the enigmatic frontman, acknowledged the crowd with a vague raising of his beverage can as he retrieved his acoustic guitar.
If you’re like me, perhaps your perception of the band was tainted upon watching their reunion tour documentary loudQUIETloud nearly a decade ago. Maybe your heart even broke a little. Truly, they should be lauded for offering a transparent look at the inner workings of one of rock’s greatest bands at a vulnerable point in their career. But many bands maintain an elusive disposition because it’s difficult to accept that many successful groups are plagued with dysfunction, communication breakdowns, drugs and alcohol, a reality that can be tough to swallow for fans.
Things got off to a shaky start Tuesday. After unceremoniously kicking things off with “Ana” followed by a hushed, acoustically-driven version of “Wave of Mutilation,” drummer David Lovering stumbled with his timekeeping, and the band stopped short their 2013 single “Indie Cindy,” evidently due to an unrecoverable flub. Eventually, the Pixies caught their groove, but the audience’s energy waned when they played several cuts from Indie Cindy in succession. The quartet’s recent material is noticeably more brooding and less playful than their more unrestrained earlier albums. The tempos are slower and the song lengths often reach past the four-minute mark, which is unusual for them. One particularly striking Indie Cindy song is “Greens and Blues,” which features a guitar riff that is classically Pixies with crucial accidentals and a hummable melody. But many others felt dull and overstayed their welcome, like the forgettable “Andro Queen,” which veers awkwardly into pop territory with an overprocessed Black Francis vocal.
Filling the shoes of founding Pixies bassist and vocalist Kim Deal was Paz Lenchantin, who has been touring with the band since last year. She looked and played the part well, donning flowers on the headstock of her bass and stoically providing backup vocals with a voice that eerily resembled Deal’s.
The group flew through their setlist, seamlessly transitioning from song to song, saving no room for banter, opting to instead establish rapport with the audience by playing as many songs as possible. Francis ended Surfer Rosa cut “Broken Face” with a resounding “Hey!” into the microphone on the last beat, signalling the beginning of fan-favorite “Hey” without pause. This economical approach to their performance won many over. Pixies played over thirty songs overall, addressing every era of their career.
High points of the night included “Gouge Away,” which began with an extended drum-and-bass groove before falling into the first verse. It received the loudest applause of the night. “Mr. Grieves” also sounded tight and powerful. Hearing the Pixies play cuts from Doolittle took me back to a time when I was a senior in high school and fell in love with the band. I had a crush on a college girl who had a Pixies tote bag, and for me this solidified that I wasn’t going to be cool until I learned their discography. They were a band that college girls liked. Diving into Doolittle, the most celebrated Pixies album in their catalog, what first struck me is how unique it sounded.
That it is difficult to remember how original the Pixies are can be solely attributed to their massive influence on every band that came after them. You can only listen to so many bands that sound like the Pixies (a list that could begin with Nirvana and Weezer) before you forget that the Pixies were the first of that cloth. It’s not enough to say that they bridged the gap between new wave and grunge. The Pixies were the bridge. They created it. That’s why the band drama and general bullshit was forgotten for fleeting moments of their set on Tuesday night. Like when Black Francis switched from acoustic to electric guitar and played the opening chords of “Velouria,” a heavy Bossanova track with a chord progression that would be tough to swallow if it were any other band, but made easier by Francis’ knack for supremely sticky and accessible melodies.
The latter half of the evening’s setlist was heavy on the classics, including “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Isla De Encanta” and “Where is My Mind?,” which didn’t quite elicit the crowd-singalong one might think would have ensued, but was still a highlight. The Pixies ditched the traditional encore, trading the spectacle for a more modest onstage break, during which they waved and bowed to the crowd, joked around with each other, gave their hands a three-minute break, then walked to their instruments and went back to it.
Pixies closed their set with “Vamos,” which had a false start when Lovering couldn’t find the 1-beat of the song, a problem that Francis joked has been ongoing for nearly thirty years since the release of their first album. They played an extended version with an interlude during which guitarist Joey Santiago made screeching feedback and noise for several minutes. The evening was a reminder of how meaningful the Pixies were (or are) and though it’s safe to say everyone missed Kim Deal to varying degrees, the group maintains their strong stage presence and are still playful and experimental. But that new album? Not great, a sentiment highlighted by sandwiching its songs between some of the greatest rock songs ever written.