The Pixies hadn’t played New Haven in nearly 25 years. FIDLAR had never played Connecticut. Combining comeback with up-and-coming at the Shubert made Wednesday’s concert that much more special.
Rock shows don’t usually cry out for decorum, but throughout their long on-off existence, The Pixies have always been afforded a special sort of attention. The band’s sound is loud and throbbing and often ends in wayward screams, but their nondemonstrative stage manner, the mystical quality of main songwriter Black Francis’ lyrics, and the haunting guitar sound of Joey Santiago make this a listen-in-close band even as the volume rises.
This lauded post-punk pre-grunge Boston band first split up in 1993 and has been reuniting on and off since 2004. One previous reunion tours, the band’s done greatest-hits revues in stadiums and a song-by-song live reiteration of one of their most important albums, Doolittle. This go-round is different. Two EPs of brand new Pixies song have been released. Some of the older tunes have been reworked, or placed in new contexts when played against the newer stuff. The Pixies have suddenly stopped being a nostalgia act and have become a working band once again.
When a lot of legendary old bands reunite, it’s a step backward, simply retreating to the proven success of an old name. It’s different for The Pixies. Leader Black Francis is just as well known to his faithful followers as Frank Black, and continues to put out extraordinary solo albums in a number of genres. He even reunited with another comrade from the ‘80s Boston scene, Reid Paley, for the folk-and-blues-based Paley & Francis album in 2011.
While there’s been a long lag time between Pixies shows in New Haven, the city keenly witnessed Frank Black’s development as a solo artist when he played Toad’s Place multiple times in the 1990s. There’s an interesting local wrinkle in Frank Black’s career. When one of New Haven’s most beloved and important indie bands, Miracle Legion, broke up around 1995, the band’s final rhythm section of Scott Boutier and Dave McCaffrey joined Black as his backing band The Catholics and worked with him for nearly a decade. Miracle Legion founder Mark Mulcahy, now a solo artist based in Springfield, Mass., opened a “surprise” Pixies show Jan. 13 in Northampton, where the band had been breaking in new bassist Paz Lenchantin.
New bassist. Right. The other compelling thing about Thursday’s concert.
Often, new recordings by reunited old bands sound more like new solo albums from the bandleaders than actual attempts to use the entire ensemble’s strengths and recapture the old magic. Unlike, say, David Johansen and the reunited New York Dolls, Frank Black has been adept at keeping his many projects separate and distinct. The new Pixies songs (“Andro Queen,” “Blue-Eyed Hexe”) sound like Pixies songs. When they deign to do covers, they are of songs they covered in their heyday, namely Peter Ivers’ “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” from David Lynch’s film Eraserhead, or the The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On.” Black is eschewing his huge stock of old solo material, focusing on Pixies oldies and consciously writing new tunes for the singular guitar stylings of Santiago and the unshowy drum-pounding of David Lowering.
But in the absolute verisimilitude department, The Pixies are hampered in this goal by the absence from this tour of Kim Deal, the band’s founding bassist and the author of a couple of its better-known songs. Paz Lenchantin, whose bands include A Perfect Circle and The Entrance Band, and who may be best known for her stint with Billy Corgan’s Zwan, was hired for the Pixies tour after the original replacement for Kim Deal, Kim Shattuck of The Muffs, was abruptly dismissed in November. Lenchantin received a burst of warm, appreciative applause from the audience at the show’s end—not a guaranteed response, given the love and respect afforded Saint Kim by Pixies purists.
Thursday’s show was elegantly structured, building gradually from the clearly enunciated lyrics of “Wave of Mutilation” to the roots-driven rave-ups “Here Comes Your Man,” “La La Love You” and “Bone Machine” (delivered in a one-two-three punch capped by the blistering “Crackity Jones”) to heavier, wilder, more wailing material. Black Francis started out with an acoustic guitar, but switched to electric a dozen songs in, using the mid-set stunner “Bag Boy”—a tune which, when released last June, marked the first new Pixies song in nearly a decade—as a lift-off point.
With a 31-song set drawn from every phase of the band’s past (and future), the exclusions were notable. It seemed nice of these Pixies NOT to do “Gigantic,” since it’s the most Kim Deal of all Kim Deal songs. But, honestly, no “Debaser”? Still, this is a band with less than 70 songs at their disposal, and they did over 30 of them—with a new bassist who had scant time to learn them.
The Shubert environment cast a warm glow on the show, which was also illuminated by a fancy light display, with reflecting panels at the back of the stage. During “Here Comes Your Man,” the lighting designs switched briefly to three simple spotlights on Santiago, Francis and Lenchantin. The black-and-white imagery wasn’t far off that of the Beatlemania show which had played the Shubert a few days earlier.
The Pixies set was pristine, but not entirely preset. The band has been changing up its setlist nightly. And while Black Francis tends to avoid stage patter—he’s more likely to restate a lyric like “I hope everything is all right” so that it sounds like an informal comment—there were some amusing communications among the band members, especially in an extended sign-language dialogue between Francis and Lovering when signaling that they were about to do an encore. Lovering did leg stretches and Francis countered with nods and flourishes until the drummer returned to his kit.
If a more relaxed and giddy mood was needed, it was contained in the opening band. FIDLAR is a scruffy and energetic skate-punk band from Los Angeles that’s been getting critical hosannas for a couple years now. (This writer, in a different publication, proclaimed their speedy rehab anthem “No Wave” the best summer song of 2012). Wednesday’s Shubert show marked FIDLAR’s Connecticut debut, in about as auspicious circumstance as a young band could find themselves—at a lush theater, opening for one of the most important rock bands of the last quarter-century. FIDLAR earned the honor, playing a set that ranged from speed-punk to dense Blue Cheer-like garage metal to roots-rock twang, all with a breezy nonchalance. Despite being a generation younger, FIDLAR resembles the sort of band The Pixies used to ally themselves with back when they themselves were basement-club upstarts.
“Let’s hear it for New Haven, huh? Huh?!,” quoth FIDLAR leader Zac Carper, who then announced that Connecticut was “the best state on the East Coast.” Carper was clad in T-shirt and shorts, at odds with the sub-freezing weather outside (on the one of the blustriest blocks in the city). FIDLAR’s ingratiating attitude was amusingly at odds with the dour Pixies. So was their whole operation. While The Pixies merchandise tables offered not just the requisite T-shirts but an array of keychains, badges and tote bags and even a long gray winter scarf with the band’s name emblazoned on it, FIDLAR’s merch had the home-made charm of a band that needs to sell a few shirts to raise gas money to get home. Zac Carper even alluded to it onstage: “We got merch that we made. It’s authentic. It might wash out in the first wash.” It was nice to see so many newfound FIDLAR fans carrying the band’s debut album and catchy and angst-ridden new single “Awkward” around the Shubert lobby.
Local promoter Mark Nussbaum of Manic Productions, who co-presented the show with Premier Concerts, said he’s already discussed bringing FIDLAR back to the city, and soon. As for The Pixies, time will tell. But they’ve certainly found an accommodating venue in the Shubert.