Ah, The Pixies… Boston’s groundbreaking 80’s surf/ sleaze punk, pre-grunge ruffians, the band cited by Kurt Cobain as his inspiration for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and a band I saw twice back in the day and twice during the early stages of their post-2000 reunion incarnation. A band I totally loved (although not, I confess, as much as Hub contemporaries Throwing Muses), but also a band who for 10 years have been off my gig schedule, primarily due to tickets for their intermittent UK shows (usually at tonight’s venue) proving as rare as rocking-horse shit, but also due to the lack of new quality material emanating from a band a decade into their “reunion”, suggesting any such gigs would primarily be nostalgia trips. However, a couple of factors conspired to sway me around this time; the enthusiasm of my friend Rich May for the gig, plus the prospect of a new album in “Head Carrier”, an album which, it subsequently transpired, held together as a cohesive and fresh musical statement of intent, rather than a scattergun collection of old riffs and offcuts lying around the rehearsal space (as so much of predecessor “Indie Cindy” appeared to be). So I booked tix on the pre-sale (on the banks of the lake, one sunny morning after a swim!), and we were go!
Fellow gig counter Stuart joined us as well, and despite problems with Swindon traffic hampering our departure, we three had a chatty, entertaining and largely unhampered trip down to Stuart’s sneaky parking spot in Hammersmith, tubing across to this cavernous South London venue and hitting the hall just as support Fews were rounding off their set. They were mining one note for all it was worth, thrashing it in a MBV wall of noise style, which if representative of their material might mark them out as one to watch. Too little to tell though… Wandered down near the front, stage left, over near the gents, which utterly reeked, as if an totally smashed rugby team had been pissing all over the floor then rolling in it. Not pleasant.
Still, The Pixies joined us dead on 9, wandering on in front of the scaffolded banks of backlights to a bossa samba backing track. Vocalist Black Francis bolted on a large acoustic guitar and eased into the eerie slow-burn “ooh-ooh”’s of opener “Where Is My Mind”, then guitarist Joey Santiago forced squalling groans from his guitar for the more frantic and fractured “Nimrod’s Son”. However after this relatively promising start things drifted quite quickly early doors; a whole lot of plodding acoustic early numbers seemed very samey and perfunctorily delivered, the likes of “Break My Body”, “Winterlong” and “La La Love You” almost merging into one, an excellently jolly “Here Comes Your Man” the only break to the monotony. This early disappointment was compounded by the band’s complete lack of communication or even acknowledgement of the audience: whilst Mr. Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV’s solo outings as Frank Black saw him occasionally voluble, his Pixies alter ego Black Francis is notoriously taciturn, only once during the whole gig directly addressing the audience (when tuning up one time), other than in song. This gave the impression that the band at this point were playing solely for themselves, and I mused – are we really here?
Thankfully, 40 minutes in, things changed, suddenly and dramatically, for the infinitely better. Sturdy newie “Tenement Song” was delivered with startling conviction, previously lacking, and “Classic Masher” was brilliant, the male/ female vocal interplay between Francis and “new” bassist Paz Lenchantin and the soaring chorus of their best new number a thrilling highlight. Now we’ve got a proper Pixies gig, I thought, as the surf punk riffery of “Head On “ came crashing down and Francis really cut loose with this voice, the dragon roar spitting fire and filling this vast auditorium for once. And thankfully I was right, as thereafter the hits rolled on – the avalanche chorus of “UMass”, the racy, conversational and sexy “I’ve Been Tired”, an eerie pink-lit “Velouria”, the seething, savage venting roar of “Rock Music”, a smoke-strewn, quickfire “Isla De Encanta”, a ball-crushingly massive “Planet Of Sound” – all delivered with righteous fire and fury.
“Hey” and the rock-steady “Gouge Away” was followed by the inevitable “Debaser”, all air-punching hooks, humourless laughs and eyeball-slicing viciousness. Overplayed, maybe, but still undeniably a classic. Set closer “Tame” snuck in, with a deceptively groovy ease, before a sequence of huge roaring crescendos, each more massive than the last, closed the set, the band then taking a lengthy bow to all corners and soaking up the audience’s reverence. At this point the whole room was then drenched in smoke and the band started up again, into encore “Into The White”, totally apposite for this sudden white-out, Paz’ dispassionate vocals matching the fuzzy, intangible mood of this, one of my favourite Pixies numbers, before they effectively dropped the mic and slunk off under the cover of this dense smoky fog. No list (they didn’t use one – I checked!) but an ultimately splendid set from the band, once they’d bedded in and really found their teeth, a fact which we three all agreed on and reflected upon, during a journey home which took us off the closed M4 through Reading and back home for a red-eyed 1.30. Not so much a set of two halves – more appropriate being, that wasn’t half a great gig!