The Pixies are one of the pioneers of indie rock. And when you listen to the band, everything pales before their main man, Black Francis
I haven’t heard this band in such a long time,” said the voluble lady from Tampa, Florida, giddily, “that I’d nearly forgotten how they sound.”
We were taking a short breather outside the theatre that warm Tuesday night while the Pixies were still playing – they had just finished Isla de Encanta – Pixies and I’d stepped out for a bathroom break (a couple of Brooklyn Lagers can do that to you in your middle age) and enroute to my seat I’d bumped into a couple going out for a smoke and got talking.
The Pixies were playing at New York’s Beacon Theater – their first show in the city in years – and giddy is one word to describe the crowd. The other could be nostalgic.
Isla de Encanta is almost entirely sung in Spanish and it’s a short (under two minutes) song that has a pulsating bass line delivered by Paz Lechantin, the band’s newish replacement for ex-bassist Kim Deal, fast-paced percussion from David Lovering and, of course, searing lead from Joey Santiago’s guitar.
Watch: Pixies – Full Performance
Those three things matter a lot but when you listen to the Pixies everything pales before their main man, leader, singer and bulwark of the band, Black Francis (aka Frank Black; birth-name Charles Thompson).
Francis turned 50 a month before the Beacon Concert and he looks it. If you didn’t know who he was and bumped into him anywhere other than see him on stage, in his baggy dad pants and shaven headed portly self, he could be a rush-hour executive holding a Styrofoam coffee cup negotiating the Manhattan grid to get to his nine-to-five job. On stage, he’s rock’s venerated god.
The Pixies were formed by Francis, Santiago, Deal and Lovering in the mid-1980s in Boston and it wouldn’t be incorrect to describe them as one of the pioneers of what has come to be known as alternative/indie rock.
Their limited commercial success is greatly overshadowed by their huge and profound influence on legions of rock bands, including venerable names such as Nirvana and Radiohead.
The Pixies broke up in 1993 but they re-formed in 2004. Then, sans Kim Deal, the band released a new album of fresh songs in 2013, Indie Cindy. If you weigh the impact that this band has had on rock music since the mid-eighties, the number of records (not counting the live albums, compilations and EPs) that they’ve released looks meagre – five.
At the gig that I went to, the setlist covered songs from all those albums, 1988’s debut album, Surfer Rosa to 2013’s Indie Cindy. And they did it matter-of-factly. Francis isn’t big when it comes to interacting with the audience but that didn’t seem to bother anyone.
They played 35 songs, including three encores, on that Tuesday night, getting on a darkened stage to start with, interestingly, a cover of In Heaven, a song from David Lynch’s surrealist film Eraserhead before doing the first from their own catalogue, Ana, from the Bossanova album. They then moved on to Pixies – Wave of Mutilation, Brick is Red, Break My Body, and Nimrod’s Son.
Most Pixies’ songs are short. They are like espresso shots of music that draw from genres that span a wide range and defy classification. Jagged edgy guitar work combines with melodic vocals and thudding basslines.
Francis (and occasionally Paz) sings about subjects that are often bizarre and always as wide-ranging as the music itself: incest, aliens, violence are just a few things that you may encounter in a Pixies song but there is more.
By the time the band was into Indie Cindy, the seventh song of the night, the audience in the art-deco theatre, already on its feet, went totally wild – in sharp contrast to the three men and a woman up on stage who seemed engrossed in making music as if they were playing for themselves.
That didn’t bother anyone and when, after playing their last two songs, Hey (Hey/Been trying to meet you/ Hey/ Must be a devil between us/ Or whores in my head/ Whores at my door/ Whores in my bed/ But hey/ Where have you been?) and Planet of Sound, the crowd screamed for more, the band came back to deliver Greens and Blues (off their newest album), the signature Where is My Mind? (off Surfer Rosa) and Vamos (with its English-Spanish lyrics).
Two days later, I was getting lost in the stacks of books (there are 18 miles of them) at New York’s Strand Bookstore when I came across The Good Inn, Black Francis’s debut novel (in collaboration with Pixies biographer Josh Frank, and artist Steven Appleby).
Set in France, the book’s protagonist is Soldier Boy who, recently discharged from the army, makes his adventurous way through France, replete with sex, art and the surreal. It’s in part a screenplay, in part a narrative, and in part a graphic novel. Also, it’s quirky as hell. Just as the Pixies’ music is.
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