Pixies, Ovens Auditorium, September 9, 2010

>> Friday, September 10, 2010

I went to see The Pixies or Pixies, as you prefer, last night at Ovens Auditorium. I think if you want to be technical and absolutely, strictly correct about the band's name, it's just "Pixies" with no definitive article, it just looks funny. But there you go.

One of the things that surprised me in days leading up to the show is how many people were actually unfamiliar with what was arguably the most important alternative band of its era. I suppose that may sound like it explains itself--if everybody knows about something, perhaps it isn't "alternative" anymore--except Pixies' influence went way beyond the indie or alt or college scenes of the late '80s and early '90s. For instance, in my particular age segment of Gen X, the first exposure to the band came with the Pump Up The Volume Soundtrack. For another, there was Nirvana: Kurt Cobain famously copped to the fact that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was his own attempt to write a Pixies song. For that matter, a lot of bands that followed were more or less copping The Pixies' sound to some degree or at least for awhile (e.g. Radiohead); that's why you say something like "arguably the most important alternative band of its era."

Nor is it like The Pixies ever really went out of style, is the other thing. Not only has their music shown up on various soundtracks a decade after they broke up (e.g. Fight Club features "Where Is My Mind" in the final scene and over the end credits), but I find it sort of interesting that The Pixies are one of the "old" bands you'll hear played on a current indie station, Indie Pop Rocks! or SiriusXMU, f'r'instance, like they're something that might have been released last week.

Anyway, the band reunited last year to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Doolittle, an album that was a bit of a big fucking deal for the band in 1989 and one that continues to draw respect (per Wikipedia, NME, which might be Britain's top music mag, called Doolittle the second-best album of all time; Rolling Stone slotted it at 222 out of 500, but Rolling Stone's a bunch of dicks, so there1). And, happy to say, the band had enough fun touring Doolittle last year they extended the tour into this year, meaning I got to see them, at long last.

They had an opening act, unadvertised as far as I know: an electronica duo that probably would've been more fun to listen to than they were to watch; I still don't know who they were and I'm not feeling compelled to find out. While they played and the lights strobed and spun through the crowd, I found myself thinking that if I wanted some cool, throbbing semi-ambient noise to write to, I'd probably play them or (more likely) wouldn't change the station if I was listening to them over the Internet. But as a live show, I dunno, it wasn't terribly exciting, these two guys semi-invisible behind a wall of lights, triggering their drum machines and churning synth loops. It wasn't unenjoyable, but you didn't miss anything.

Maybe half an hour after they left the stage, The Pixies came out to much applause. I probably should've taken a picture with my cell phone, but the battery was pretty dead. The setup was band on stage with four huge paper balloons hung over them that raised and lowered and had multicolored lights inside, and then (the main feature) behind the band a semi-transparent digital screen displaying various videos. The screen was mostly utilized for Doolittle, though the band's entrance was preceded by a somewhat disturbing, fractured silent film that went on for several minutes before resolving into a band logo that appeared as they actually came onstage.

I sort of expected they'd launch into "Debaser" (the first cut on Doolittle, but I was wrong: actually, they started with four or five B-sides and rarities, tracks I didn't recognize at all but it was totally cool because this was the motherfucking Pixies, and they were tight, and so it was like being in college again and seeing some awesome new band except everybody onstage and in the crowd was in their late-30s to mid-40s. And I suppose there were probably really hardcore fans who recognized the alt tracks, but, anyway, it was cool.

And then, Doolittle. The screen announced the album's commencement as the band finally launched into "Debaser" and proceeded to rip through the album posthaste with very little banter or much more between songs other than Francis Black tuning up (he retuned between every song, I think) or Kim Deal taking a swig from whatever she had up on the drum stand. Joey Santiago swapped guitars a few times between cuts. (I'm not trying to neglect or overlook drummer David Lovering, he just didn't do much between songs other than smile and wait for his bandmates to get set for him to count off the next song.)

I'd have to say that one unfortunate thought that crossed my mind was that the whole "let's play Doolittle!" tour concept may have been an idea that played itself out at some point. Lots of bands have toured albums, as in not just touring to promote a record but playing the whole album start-to-finish (Pink Floyd used to do that all the time), and Doolittle is a great album, but I have to say that the band sometimes seemed to be working their way through the record, whereas they seemed quite a bit looser during the non-Doolittle songs they started with and then played during their encores. Other than Kim Deal, I might say: Deal was grinning the whole time and seemed to be having a blast. It's possible, though, that the extended tour had them playing Doolittle a few times too many, or maybe the fact they actually had a sort of lightshow for the Doolittle segment (with video clips for every song) sucked some spontaneity away.2

That said, I don't want to leave any doubt: the band kicked ass tearing through Doolittle. Standouts included "La La Love You" and a pretty wrenching take on "Hey". "Debaser" and "Wave Of Mutilation" were strong. I wish "Gouge Away", one of my favorite Pixies' songs, had been stronger, but I can't complain.

That marked the end of the main set and the band left the stage. They came out for their first encore, and this is where things got maybe a little weird and tense: Kim Deal announced that they were going to play "another B-side" they thought the crowd would like, and the band launched into... a take on the "UK Surf" version of "Wave Of Mutilation".

Now, if you know Doolittle or you were paying attention earlier in the review, maybe you noticed that "Wave Of Mutilation" is a cut from Doolittle (the third song on the album). The "Surf" version and the album version are markedly different, the former being very laid-back and the latter far more aggressive, but it's still the same song. If the band had played a mellow version of "Wave" during the Doolittle set, nobody would've blinked.

I can sort of see why they'd do it. I'm sure there were some really hardcore fans who thought it was a pretty fucking bold and cool thing to do. I understand that. Here's the radically different approach to the same material, and we're cool enough to play both versions of it because you're cool enough to dig the differences, sort of like tasting two different variations of a similar wine at a tasting. And then there was the guy behind me and to my right who kept yelling, "You already played this fucking song" through the whole thing, which I also get. And I have to admit that while I kind of wanted the asshole who kept yelling at the band to shut the fuck up, I'm also not sure I'm cool enough to really appreciate a band I paid fifty bucks to see playing the same exact song twice.3

For the second encore, the band brought up the house lights. I don't know if that was because they had a guy from the crowd jump up onstage to dance during the first encore (if so, it didn't stop the guy who jumped onstage and got tackled during the second encore) or if the band just wanted to see the crowd, but either way I think it was the second encore where the band, the whole band and not just Kim Deal and maybe David Lovering, seemed really just happy to be there. After several songs I couldn't place, they wrapped up with "Gigantic" and "Where Is My Mind?", and it was sweet, sweet, sweet stuff.

The show didn't seem that long. I think it was only about ninety minutes, though I may be shortchanging them a little. But it was damn solid, no regrets. Twenty years past their prime, Pixies still have it, still kick ass, still sound as good as or better than they ever have. A pretty great show, and if you can catch them this time through, it's worth the ticket price. Plus, y'know, I can cross them off the list of legends I haven't seen yet.

1I mention the NME rating by way of perspective, not endorsement. I really don't think Doolittle is the second-greatest album of all time, though it's indubitably made of awesome.

When I was in high school, Rolling Stone did a list of the 200 greatest albums of all time; it was a bit controversial at the time, probably because nobody realized "Greatest Lists" would become a recurring gimmick to gin up sales and that by the end of the following decade RS and other entertainment mags would end up doing about eight-hundred-million "greatest of" type lists, including a truly embarrassing mid-'90s list issue from Rolling Stone that was heavily-weighted in favor of a bunch of forgettable bubblegum from Britney Spears and similar acts. Anyway, the reason I mention it is that part of what had people talking about the issue was that the editors of Rolling Stone had picked Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as the best album of all time and Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols as the second-best.

Everybody agreed, at the time, that Pepper's belonged in the top slot. That wasn't the problem. What had everybody in a tizzy was that the loud, messy and clumsily-recorded debut from the Sex Pistols was even in the top ten. That was, as many said, "bullshit."

What's funny, though, is that in the intervening twenty-plus years, as I've pondered this and continued to expand my musical vocabulary, I've kind of changed my mind. I have no idea what the best album of all time was, but I'm pretty sure it isn't Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which sounds increasingly dated to 1967 the more time goes by. That's not a knock on The Beatles, because Revolver is a pretty good candidate for greatest album ever. Revolver kicks all sorts of ass, and the parts that sound dated sound like they might have been recorded in 1971 (Revolver was recorded and released in 1965).

But I have very little doubt that Never Mind The Bollocks is, in fact, the second-greatest rock album ever recorded. That's the funny part, the kicker. The Pistols weren't the best punk band (that would be The Clash) and they weren't the first (that might be The New York Dolls, though the point's in contention), but Bollocks is the record that made the most noise, that trebucheted a king-sized-rock into the middle of what was becoming an increasingly stagnant duckpond. And unlike Pepper's, it ages well; actually, it ages in reverse, like Merlin, becoming fresher as time goes by.

2Setpieces do this, of course, though there are sometimes ways a band can give itself a little bit of wriggle room when it comes to keeping everything synced.

3One is a little reminded of Johnny Lydon's infamous jab at a Sex Pistols audience, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Except, of course, part of the point of Lydon's jab is that that kind of confrontational attitude towards the audience is actually very rock'n'roll, y'know? I mean, okay, so a rock concert can be a big fat lovefest and be incredibly awesome--see a Bruce Springsteen show if you don't know what I'm talking about. But there's a confrontational element to--well, I don't want to say to rock'n'roll in general (again, see Springsteen, who I think is a great rocker), but part of rock's energy comes from a certain level of "fuck you-ness," from a certain level of antagonism or sometimes even outright contempt towards the rock audience, a kind of sadomasochistic lust affair in which the dynamic shifts back and forth between the crowd and the audience. The band is trying to win over an innately suspicious, rebellious crowd, a crowd that wants to adore the band but also wants to prove its coolness by rejecting anything as needy and desperate to be loved as a rock band (a rock band that, in its turn, can't show how needy it really is and must feign further contempt).

I'm not saying that playing "Wave" twice was necessarily a contemptuous act, but it was a challenge to the crowd, a challenge that the "fuck you, you already played this fucking song" guy simultaneously passed and failed by being both unable to rise to the challenge and by being willing to call "bullshit" on it. Because while playing "Wave" twice was audacious and challenging, it was bullshit.


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