Photo by Jennifer Anderson.
For the record, I was pulling for them. For services rendered to indie music, for the bands they’ve inspired and for proving to me and countless others that rock still had life in it. The Pixies deserve to be rich and happy, left alone to play whenever and release whatever they want, on exactly their own terms.
But their Feb. 22 performance at San Jose’s City National Civic, part of the Pixies’ first tour supporting new music in more than 20 years and the first ever without bassist Kim Deal, showed that they don’t need my good wishes. From the opening tom-tom of “Bone Machine” to their final encore, almost two hours later, the Pixies proved that they are still a living, creative force. With emphasis on the “force.”
The crowd was older, fans with memories of the band’s initial 1986 to 1993 run—although there was some young blood too, including at least one pre-tween, brought by parents who themselves could have been children of any original Pixie.
But any thought that these hardcore supporters might resent new songs encroaching on the golden glow of their lost college years was just a critic’s natural skepticism. When the hardcore-structured “What Goes Boom,” from last fall’s EP 1, segued seamlessly into opening numbers from Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, there was a great pumping of fists and shouting of lyrics from the crowd. The message was clear: Real fans already have embraced the new stuff.
Black Francis’ signature holler was in fine full-throat. And touring bassist Paz Lenchantin, Kim Deal’s replacement, at least for the moment, shouted right back as they worked through songs from the entire Pixie’s catalog (plus one Jesus and Mary Chain cover). No frills, no banter. Just lots of loud rock.
Second concern scotched: There can be life, post Kim Deal.
Nevertheless, the atmospherics were distinctly different. Beside three middle-aged guys from Boston, the slightly Lenchantin can resemble a popsicle. Her willowy dancing and beaming smile are no less of a contrast, either, to the intensity of the founding members. While they were absorbed in the moment, Lenchantin was effusively enjoying it.
Self-proclaimed debasers, the Pixies are gleeful demystifiers, sapping the pretense out of love songs and rock stardom alike. This has given poignancy to Francis’s forays into sentimentality—when he admits to aspiring to something pure and redemptive, whose possibility is inevitably thwarted in the music. But in numbers where the “quiet” dominates in the Pixies’ trademark loud-quite-loud formula, yearning songs such as the recent “Indie Cindy,” Lenchantin brings something the Pixies have never had before: unabashed romanticism.
Deal’s magic was that she had the force to meet Francis’s bombast head on. She was his gadfly, whose goading and subverting inoculated the band against any symptom of testosterone rock. If Lenchantin stays on with the band, however, she could have a role voicing Francis’s naïve alter ego, which raises the question on some minds: Is the Pixies, minus Deal, just another name for the Black Francis Experience?
Because they don’t sing (much), Joey Santiago and David Lovering are sometimes seen in a second position, but they certainly are not there to to Francis’s bidding. Indeed, Santiago’s insane textures and deliberately wrong playing define the group’s sound as much as Francis’s shouting. (One of the evening’s highlights was Santiago’s inspired burlesque of Jimmy Page, a strutting, ridiculous, and seemingly endless feedback and effects solo in a giddy version of “Vamos.”) Meanwhile, Lovering’s muscular drumming provides a clarity and drive that keeps the songs from flying to pieces and his energy is inexhaustible. The words might be Francis’s, but the statement the Pixies make is a composite of four distinctive musicians following their own track.
In addition to questions answered and fears assuaged, there was genuine revelation that evening, in the form of an assaulting and transportive version of “Bagboy.” When the talk-heavy single was released last fall, it impressed me, not entirely favorably, as Francis riffing on Pere Ubu or Was (Not Was). But here was a wall of guitar noise and relentless drumming that was thrillingly vast and inhuman. It was the band’s least pop moment, when all their native prickliness, now domesticated by two decades of familiarity, came flooding back. If a new Pixies were forming today, this is what they would sound like. It was so fresh and defiant that it threatened to make the remainder of the show feel like an oldies act.
That fact that it didn’t is a tribute both to the strength of the original material and to the vitality of the band who, even after all these years, still has something to shout about.
Read more about the Pixies in our interview with Joey Santiago and David Lovering.