The Pixies Verizon Wireless Theater September 20, 2010
For more images from Monday's show, see our slideshow here.
The Pixies are Costanza.
In one episode of Seinfeld, a woman who had recently made George Costanza's acquaintance remarks to Jerry Seinfeld that there must be more to Jason Alexander's balding, bespectacled nebbish than meets the eye.
"Oh no," exhales Jerry. "There's less."
Since they stopped releasing new music almost two decades ago, the Pixies have become so venerated, so lionized, so pillaged and plundered by a generation or two of lesser artists, that they really have become more a legend than a band. Not until they go onstage with only four papier-mache eyeballs and a series of stylized short films for company does the realization settle in that they might be human after all.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The Pixies may have done more with less than any band in history, certainly any band that has been elevated to their lofty status. Pick a song, any song, and it's familiar: Kim Deal's bounding, up-the-middle bass lines; David Lovering's skeletal drumming; Joey Santiago's strangulated Dick Dale/Sergio Leone guitar; and Frank Black voicing his obsessions with science fiction, sea creatures, nursery rhymes and surrealism at varying degrees of agitation and volume.
The proportions may vary from song to song, and do, but the ingredients are the same. Lovering isn't the only magician in the band.
Monday night at a nearly sold-out Verizon Wireless Theater, the Pixies showed why, and how, their body of work remains one of the most recognizable and unique in recent rock history. The evening's mise en scene was the quartet's nautical/zoological 1989 album Doolittle, from the four table-setting B-sides through inevitable singalongs "Here Comes Your Man," "Monkey Gone To Heaven," "La La Love You" and (a little surprisingly) "Hey."
Deal greeted the crowd with a simple "the B-sides," before the ocean-choppy and brusque "Do the Manta Ray." "Weird At My School" was a mad Sun Records/spaghetti western rockabilly shuffle, and the drowsy "Bailey's Walk" never left the sketchbook, essentially over before it began.
"Manta Ray," though, put all the pieces together: Deal's hefty bass melody and ghostly other-room vocals; Lovering's punk pacing; and Santiago wringing the life out of his fretboard. It was like watching a stop-motion animation film of a skeleton growing all its tissue back, a perfect segue into Doolittle proper.
And so came "Debaser," heavier than on the record but just as sweet; the crowd cackled along with Black as hints of the Jesus & Mary Chain's softer moments crept into Santiago's guitar. "Tame" was all bass, screaming and hyperventilating drums, "good shame" indeed.
"Wave of Mutilation" is one of those songs that just sinks into the soft tissue, that people recognize somehow whether they've ever knowingly heard the Pixies or not. So is "Here Comes Your Man"; a happier song that somehow managed to escape the Smiths has never been written. That one guitar part, sunny but indelibly sad, marks Santiago and Johnny Marr as kindred spirits for all time.
In between came the spookhouse pop of "I Bleed," the overhead eyeballs now blood-red, moving and Santiago's guitar actually hemorraghing a little bit. After "Man" came its freaky flip-side "Dead," manic, jittery and off-key until Santiago the snake charmer almost meshed it all together at the chorus. And what the hell does "Uriah hit the crapper" mean?
Every so often, Deal would update the crowd, who hardly needed it, on how far into the album the Pixies were. Side two dawned with "Monkey Gone to Heaven," which stung and soothed, man still five, the devil still six, God still seven. "Mr. Grieves" lurched and leered, weird and lovely; the blistering surf-punk of "Crackity Jones" was matched by the parade of plastic babies onscreen behind the band, moving so fast they looked like popcorn.
In Spanish, Deal introduced Lovering for "La La Love You," and Santiago introduced some '60s Henry Mancini/Inspector Clouseau intrigue to complement the crowd's wolf whistles. "No. 13 Baby" was one of those nursery rhymes Black mentioned earlier, twisted and tasty with broken-glass guitar.
Here Deal made an important, and possibly unintentional, point. "This is toward the end of the second side, so it's where the deep cuts are usually buried," she said. Meaning a) these people still think in terms of two-sided records; and b) the Pixies have no real deep cuts - the singles are just as askew and bristling as the album tracks, which are just as feathery and catchy as the singles.
"Silver" was the exception that proved the rule. The strangest, and slowest, song on the album came as an ominous and plodding death march, extra fuzz on the guitar and acoustic flourishes hinting the gallows lay just around the corner. Black's vocals, meanwhile, suggested it was the previous corner.
And, if we are to take Deal at her word, how did "Gouge Away" wind up as the last song on Doolittle? It's no deep cut, that's for sure. Thanks to her slippery bass and Black's suggestive vocals, it's as single-worthy as "Monkey Gone to Heaven," all the more remarkable because for all Santaigo's screeching and squalling guitar, it hangs together like an early Beatles track.
But that's the Pixies. Four ordinary-looking folks now in their 40s who turned rock upside down by doing everything their instincts told them not to. George Costanza would be proud.
Read on for the encore...
"We do know other songs not on this record," Deal said after a swaying alternate take on "Wave of Mutilation" and an extended, churning "Into the White" filled the entire hall with smoke and a vibe creepier than a V.C. Andrews novel.
Her rope-thick bass held together "Planet of Sound," which erupted into a gnashing, almost ugly chorus that, in perhaps the evening's clearest example of the influence the Pixies continue to exert on today's modern-rock bands, truly uncaged the elephant. Sorry.
Like two halves of the same song (which we admit we originally thought was a disjointed take on "Vamos"), "Isla de Encanta" floored the accelerator like a lost Reverend Horton Heat demo; then "Nimrod's Son" alternated heavy swing with a light touch and a little Black Sabbath stomp. Whatever it was, it was a son of a motherfucker all right.
Then - finally - things got really strange. In the middle of "Where Is My Mind?", house lights on and the crowd happily echoing Deal's spectral "ooh-ooh-oohs," a real-life fight club appeared to break out down front as a stage-crasher appeared out of nowhere and was quickly wrestled off by security.
"Perfect timing," the bassist said. And they left.
The crowd yelled. And stood around. And looked confused.
Some people started to clap. Our friend standing next to us said, "If they come back and pick [the song] up from the break, it was a setup." (We were at the back of the room near the soundboard - watch this video here and it doesn't look quite so staged.)
A minute or two of clapping and whistling later, that's exactly what they did.
But it was hard to feel cheated, not after "Gigantic" restored some equilibrium to the room and sent everyone off into the night not on a wave of mutilation, but big, big love.
Personal Bias: Aftermath has never been quite as enthralled by the Pixies as some folks, but we've also had to buy more than one copy of Doolittle due to wear and tear.
The Crowd: Plenty of people who probably saw the Pixies in the Vatican/Axiom/Unicorn days, and plenty of people who couldn't have been born back then. And almost everyone we've ever met since moving to Houston.
Overheard In the Crowd: Lips smacking as the couple next to us noisily and hungrily made out as the Pixies walked out for the encore.
Random Notebook Dump: The floor of Verizon smelled like the dorm rooms no doubt did when many on hand Monday put the needle to Doolittle for the first time.
Do the Manta Ray Weird At My School Bailey's Walk Manta Ray Debaser Tame Wave of Mutilation I Bleed Here Comes Your Man Dead Monkey Gone to Heaven Mr. Grieves Crackity Jones La La Love You No. 13 Baby There Goes My Gun Hey Silver Gouge Away
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Wave of Mutilation (alternate) Into the White
Planet of Sound Isla de Encanta Nimrod's Son Where Is My Mind? Gigantic