It’s the reunion they once thought would never happen, now becoming the reunion that may never end. As they approach the tenth anniversary of their first comeback shows, this tour has a twist to it, as the Pixies are finally stepping off the nostalgia circuit and becoming a living entity once more.
With a single, ‘Bagboy’, and the first EP in a planned series dropping earlier this year, what would be alternative rock’s second coming has been largely approached with polite scepticism. The new material has met a mixed reception, so as much as tonight (the first of two nights at the Olympia) is about reliving former triumphs once again, they also find themselves on the defensive, trying to prove that they can make something new that slots seamlessly into one of the most foundational and consistent bodies of work in all of popular music. No pressure at all.
The other pachyderm in the auditorium is, of course, the very present lack of beloved bassist, Breeder and Dandy Warhols’ song subject Kim Deal. Having indefinitely left the group, she has been replaced for the meantime by Kim Shattuck, former vocalist of cult pop-punks the Muffs (they did that great cover of ‘Kids in America’ on the Clueless soundtrack, if that helps), presumably hired because the band had only just memorised the name Kim and weren’t up for starting from scratch.
Shattuck, aka Kimitation, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Kim™ or Kim No Deal, is under a microcosmic version of the same pressure on the band; to prove herself in the face of any doubters. To step into the shoes of one of the most iconic figures in alternative rock in front of thousands of diehard fans is not an enviable task.
Warming up the sold-out crowd are semi-mysterious NO CEREMONY///, who offer an impressive mix of singer-songwriter balladry refracted through a lens of electronic pop. They handle both ecstatic dance numbers and slow, mournful numbers with ease, and will definitely be making a splash sometime in the future, at least when their audience’s minds aren’t fixated on the headliners.
Then it’s Pixies time. A joyful, deafening applause welcomes them to the stage, and they kick off with an unexpected, but absolutely perfect, opening number, ‘In Heaven’. Despite being a cover taken from David Lynch’s Eraserhead, it’s got everything one expects from the Pixies; surrealist lyricism, gorgeous melodies and an underlying air of menace.
The subsequent quartet of classic tracks (‘Ana’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’ in its ‘UK Surf’ form, ‘Cactus’ and ‘Ed Is Dead’) are spectacular, their real achievement being to serve as a jarring reminder of just how singular and shocking their work was. Everyone here has heard these tracks dozens of times, to the point that they’re so ingrained in our minds that it’s hard to remember just what it was like hearing them the first time around. Seeing the band (well, three-quarters of them) in the flesh brings it all back. The phantasmagorical travelogue of ‘Wave of Mutilation’ and prison-cell pining of ‘Cactus’ have frontman Frank Black at his manic best, commanding the audience by entirely unnerving them.
Thus begins an impressively dense set of just over 30 tracks, the band stopping between tracks only to breathe and retune. Having been practising a sizable chunk of their back catalogue in the lead up to this tour, their aim was to play a different set every night, picking and choosing from wherever the mood took them. The results are, as expected, mixed. We get to hear some lesser gems like ‘Dead’, ‘River Euphrates’ and ‘I’ve Been Tired’ (a song whose would-be newly poignant Lou Reed reference is immediately tempered by its “whore with disease” line), but only at the expense of other more established tracks like ‘Bone Machine’, ‘U-Mass’ and, most notably, ‘Velouria’. We’re also spared the blasphemy of having Shattuck (or, even worse, Black) sing ‘Gigantic’, of course. All that said, there’s still a near-glut of stand-out moments tonight. Particularly unexpected ones include Black’s tender crooning on ‘Havalina’, an infectious rendition of their oddball cover of Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Head On’ and Joey Santiago’s front-of-stage, noisenik soloing on ‘Vamos’.
The latter is actually the group’s sole concession to rock star posturing, as Santiago stands tall and lets the crowd cheer for him as he summons an extensive vocabulary of sonic weirdness from his guitar’s switches and dials. It’s something he’s been doing since the band’s early days, and in old footage, which often has him grinding a beer can or any other nearby implement against his fretboard, it came across as a performance of concentrated catharsis, noise as release of some horrible inner frustration. Tonight he just looks like he’s having a ball teasing the crowd, one giddy moment in another wise straight-faced, no-frills affair. Shattuck reveals herself to be more than up to task on everything from the ethereal backing falsetto of ‘Where is My Mind?’ to the orgiastic moaning of ‘Tame’, though it’s worth noting that her vocals are far lower in the mix tonight than Deal’s ever were. Getting used to change is tough.
The new material scattered throughout fares relatively well. ‘Bagboy’ is warmly received, though it is entirely incongruous seeing Dave Lovering using a drum machine, and ‘Indie Cindy’ easily stacks up against the rest of the set with a frantic energy that was missing from its studio version. There’s a heavy backloading of classic material, with ‘Debaser’, ‘Hey’, ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ and the devastating ‘Gouge Away’ all coming close to the sets end. While any of these would have been the ideal resolution, the set itself ends with the unusual choice of ‘Caribou’, followed by a slightly bizarre encore of the electric version of ‘Wave of Mutilation’ and ‘Planet of Sound’. It works, but only in the sense that it’s a typically Pixies move to disregard any conventional approach to finishing a set.
So there we have it: the Pixies, one of alternative rock’s touchstones, trying to start it all over again a quarter-century later. The display tonight shows that their entirely up to the task, with only their own legacy to hold them back.