27th September 2013
I could not have found a more appropriate place for a pre-Pixies tipple than the underground Gremio tapas bar, opposite the Brixton Electric. Located beneath a church, it’s all reds and blacks and Spanish guitar. The Titty Twister from Tarantino’s “Dusk Till Dawn” sprang to mind. It wouldn’t be long before the inside of the venue – one of the best venues of this size I’ve been to – would be reminiscent of that same bar in the later stages of the film, with all hell breaking lose.
This did not happen immediately as the Pixiestook to the stage however. Many might have been surprised to hear not a Pixies classic, or even a new one of theirs, but instead the band’s take on a favourite by The Fall. Their version even featured a false ending meaning that much of the crowd, no doubt aficionados of the majority of the Pixies’ own material, found themselves being caught out clapping too soon, which did make me laugh. And we would be made to wait just that little bit longer for a Pixies set proper to begin as they then launched into the JAMC’s “Head On”, although a cover of this did appear on their own album, “Trompe Or Monde” (which I’d forgotten, I must admit).
Things got off to a great start with “Wave of Mutilation”, greeted by a surge of bodies at the front, lapping it up. This was the first time I’d seen the band since they reformed around 10 years ago, and I’d picked a good time, since this year, at last there is new material, of which quite a large amount is played tonight. I saw them 3 times back in their heyday, and I still say that one of these times, at Brixton Academy, was the best gig I’ve ever been to, and this was partly due to the crowd reaction – people were going seriously berserk.
I think you have to bear in mind that back then, the Pixies were popular, but only among a certain section of society. Let’s face it, they were still basically a cult band. Part of the enjoyment of seeing them was to be amongst others similarly engrossed in the indie/alternative lifestyle, which you might struggle to find these days. Largely due to the fact that culture of all kinds has become so easily accessible, the Pixies now seem to be more accepted by the mainstream. But the band, its music, and still, the sort of people who actually will pay to go and see them live, has not changed.
Saying that, one change of course has been made. The inimitable Kim Deal has left to be replaced by another Kim, Kim Shattuck. I think they would have struggled to find a better replacement. This Kim looks the part, and has a very similar sounding vocal to Kim Deal – when she sings the backing vocals to new song “Bagboy”, for example, if you’d closed your eyes, you might have imagined it was in fact Kim Deal herself.
Most of the crowd seemed to enjoy listening to the new stuff, although inevitably, most were more static during these songs. A lot of head-nodding to “Bagboy”. I personally felt that both this and “What Goes Boom” sounded so much better played live than when I listened to them on Youtube.
But of course, we had really come for our favourites. Interestingly, “Come On Pilgrim”, their first record, was chosen to be mined from the most. This is possibly the most sparse-sounding Pixies record – as their career continued, the sound tended to fill out more. The set seemed slightly erratic in nature, veering violently between old and new, loud and quiet, almost like any single Pixies track.
Despite a lot of depth in the lyrics, and some quite complex guitar parts, a lot of Pixies songs are effective simply because they are also incredibly catchy. “Hey” is one that sticks out for me, where a comparison between the sounds made during sex and childbirth is made, then the chorus of “We’re chained”, and there is a further link between band and audience, it seems, as I’m suddenly surrounded by a choir of little angels – they have a good number of young fans – shouting the words back to the singer.
Black Francis will have to go down as not only one of the best songwriters in rock history, but also one of the best vocalists. Just an incredible range, his voice is equally effective when he is straight forward singing, as when he is howling the word repent on “Caribou” for example. Alongside him, we have, in Joey Santiago, an effortlessly cool-looking guitarist. His guitar squeals like an injured animal – there was always pain involved with 4AD bands, but out of this pain came searing beauty. On drums, David Lovering hammers out the rhythms. Producer of the Pixies second record, Steve Albini, always liked to give the drums a raw sound, and bring them to the fore, so it can’t be understated the importance of the rhythmic sound on Pixies tracks. Closing number, “Vamos” has an extended drum section, like a Spanish dance track, and we’re back to where we started.
The Pixies for me have not aged, like so many bands that have reformed for the nostalgia tours in recent years, or bands that just carry on longer than needed. Only possibly “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, though still a terrific song, sounds slightly dated with a lyric about the Ozone layer (“the hole in the sky”). The Ozone layer is hardly trending on twitter – not sure if it even still exists does it? Far more significantly however is that they could afford, in a 28-strong set, to miss out 2 of their most well known songs – “Debaser” and “Gigantic” (perhaps the latter as it is more Kim Deal’s song), as well as many significant others – there’s no “Bone Machine”, “Broken Face”, “Tame” or “Digging for Fire” – and still sound consistently strong. Perhaps never better than on “Planet of Sound”, the last song of the main set before the encore, greeted by possibly the liveliest reaction in the mosh-pit.
I’ll be honest, there were moments tonight when I might have cried – during “Levitate Me” for example – which I really wasn’t expecting, and I really don’t know why – possibly simply that the Pixies are and were just impossibly good.
All words by Nick Fisk. More writing by Nick on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.