Excitement over the Pixies’ return to LA early this month reached its most fevered moment on the Friday when it was announced the band was playing a fanclub-only gig at the Echo. The ensuing collective swoon was so intense that one enterprising Craigslist user posted an ad (since removed) offering a ticket to a “totally chill and open-minded” female who could accompany him to the gig, but who would be required to “meet at (his) hotel in the early afternoon.” I certainly hope that before anyone honored his offer to offer their honor, they checked Ticketmaster for the band’s week of shows at the Mayan and El Rey; word was they were sold out, but I was able to get one on Friday night once it became obvious that the Craigslist guy wasn’t going to return my calls.
I was psyched to see the Pixies, who I hadn’t seen since 1987, as the opener on a Throwing Muses show in Boston, around the time they signed to 4AD. But I was also excited to see Kim Shattuck in the bass player/ high harmony singer position. I’ve seen Kim regularly ever since the Muffs walked into Raji’s and pushed everyone around one night in 1992, and I had a feeling it would be just right. And it was.
Let’s put it right on the table. Kim Deal is a really beloved person, and recognized as a big creative contributor to the Pixies, one of the things people especially like about them. Lots of people have crushes on her. But at risk of personal injury from her boyfriends, it must be said: her bass parts, while distinct and perfect in their way, are not that hard for another accomplished player to learn. It’s not as if John Entwistle’s gone and they’ll never find someone good enough to play those parts. For those who can’t stand the idea of a Deal-free Pixies, her absence will be a dealbreaker no matter how good the new person is, but if you can accept change, it’s not an unsolvable problem for the music.
Shattuck’s good at playing these songs, it turns out, and mostly plays them straight, like the other members, clinging closely to the way things sound on the albums. But she also brings a buoyant stage presence and a confident hand, having evidently learned almost every song on the group’s early albums; virtually all of Doolittle and Surfer Rosa were played over the course of the band’s week in LA, along with a smattering from their entire career, a dollop of new songs and a cover of the Fall’s “New Big Prinz.”
And this is good news, because the Pixies are capable of real power onstage in 2013. “Head On” came roaring out of the gate, Black Francis screaming his guts out over a pulverizing one note riff. A run of fast, noisy ones came shortly after – “Something Against You”, “Crackity Jones”, “Broken Face” and “Isla De Encanta”, broken up by a warm, surging “Wave Of Mutilation” – that could have fed a CBGB’s matinee. The band can appear kind of aloof when pounding through these old ragers – imagine New Order playing a spot-on version of “1 2 X U” – but there’s something endearing about people who appear to be naturally shy getting onstage anyway. At that early show I witnessed, they were almost comically stiff and awkward, Deal staring at a single spot on the ceiling all night.
Now, after a twenty-five year career as performers, they just seem, well, aloof, even as they very precisely execute these searing tunes at hardcore speeds, the kind of songs where you think the guitar player should be running around the stage, the singer hanging off the mic, the bass player climbing the rig of speakers to stage-dive into the crowd. The band’s onstage demeanor is a negation of all that – all you have is the band, and the sound coming out of the PA. For much of the show they were seen as silhouettes against a glowing white backdrop that resembled a stack of TV screens, lights behind the band, pointed into the audience. It’s its own kind of stage presence, in a way.
Setlists through the run varied, and I’m happy to have been there on a night when “No. 13 Baby” and “Tame” both got played. But the Fall cover and the new tunes “Bagboy”, “Blue Eyed Hexe” and “Another Toe In The Ocean” were strong additions to a set made up of a lot of deep album tracks and skipping some of the expected hits – no “Here Comes Your Man” or “Velouria” or “Where Is My Mind” or even “Bone Machine”.
We might have heard some of those had the band done an encore following an extended and bone-rattling “Planet of Sound.” Instead, they turned the lights on, cranked Bowie records and told everyone to get out. I wasn’t that shocked when the lights came on, they’re friends with Pere Ubu who once introduced their last song by saying “This is the part where we’re supposed to walk off and you’re supposed to cheer us back on, but you know we’re gonna come back and do one more, so let’s just skip all that and do the last song.” It felt like they’d packed a lot into 75 minutes, so I walked out well satisfied, though I’ve read that audience reaction to the refusal to do an encore was not pleasant. Not like a RIOT mind you, this isn’t angry Sabbath fans we’re talking about, but prolonged and vociferous moaning.
For what it’s worth, I’ve heard they DID do encores on other nights, so maybe Black Francis had a sore throat. At any rate it doesn’t seem like anything to boo about. Geez. I don’t care if people did see a printed setlist with three more songs written on it. Once the band is off the stage, they’re entitled not to play an encore if they don’t feel like it.
Hey, you’ve heard of John Cage? THAT was your encore, folks, the sound of your own pissy resentment reflected back at you. I hope the band recorded you and makes a single out of you.