The Tyranny of Distance: On Seeing Pixies Live

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Pixies (bass drum) // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

By Hollister Dixon // Photos by Yousef Hatlani

  1. I spent a decent amount of time deciding on a name for this review, and I realized that the best title possible was not by the Pixies, but by Ted Leo. The title has been stuck in my head for longer than I can remember at this point, and I think it says a lot about the band that the Pixies are: they are four people who managed to form one of the most important bands of the late 20th century, despite actively hating each other. In a phone interview included in the film loudQUIETloud: A Film About The Pixies (a film that documented the return of a band that’s return always seemed like a nice dream rather than a possibility), Frank Black, the cantankerous, screaming frontman of the group, said this of the relationship: “We don’t talk to each other that much, and not because we don’t like each other. It’s just the kind of people we are.”
  2. Let’s address the elephant in the room: people have a troubled relationship with the band at this point in time. The band have been reunited for a decade at this point, but have only released 10 songs, one of which was a deleted song from the Shrek 2 soundtrack, a Kim Deal lead number called “Bam Thwok”, which the setlist archiving site Setlist.FM says has only been played five times since the song’s release. None of these songs have been well-received, but it’s possible that the band’s checkered history in 2013 might help explain this. In June of last year, Kim Deal, the exuberant and incredible bassist of the band, left abruptly, for reasons that have yet to be completely explained. Pixies fans view Deal as an integral piece of the puzzle, providing the charisma the band sorely needs. At one point, guitarist Joey Santiago stated that the band mourned the loss of their long-time comrade for a scant three days, before chugging along with their new EP (simply titled EP1) with Muffs bassist Kim Shattuck – who was then replaced by Entrance Band/A Perfect Circle/Zwan bassist Paz Lenchantin late last year. Because of all of this, Pixies are viewed as the shell of what they used to be. This is unfairbut we’ll get to that soon.

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    Best Coast // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

  3. Before we progress, let’s talk about the show’s opener, Best Coast. I’ve been waiting a good long while to see Best Coast, and have been prevented from doing so by other obligations the night of every single show the group have played in Portland (most notably the VitaminWater Uncapped performance Best Coast did with up-and-coming hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, which fell on the same night as a reunited Codeine). The unfortunate thing is, Bethany Cosentino and her group played to a very tough (and half empty) crowd, and their sound was lost to the corners and cracks of the Schnitz. Best Coast are a fantastic band, but they are one who’s sound is coated with a thick layer of grunge, and though that sound works in this space, their particular brand of it is better suited for nearly any other small-to-mid-sized venue in Portland. Had this show taken place at the Crystal Ballroom or the Roseland, they would have torn the roof off the place. It’s truly a shame, because they played their hearts out, sounded fantastic, and were clearly grateful to be opening for a band like Pixies.

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    Pixies // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

  4. The first three songs of the Pixies set were played perfectly, and served as a strange miniature history of the band, in only six minutes. Starting with the still pretty bizarre “Bone Machine”, followed by “Wave of Mutilation”, and then the classic “U-Mass” from the band’s final album, Tromp Le Monde. As someone who has been waiting to see the Pixies for as long as I can remember, the show could have ended right then and there and I would have been extremely happy.
  5. No matter how dubious the crowd was, those fears did not prevent everyone from rocking the fuck out. I’m not very familiar with the two EPs that have come out in the last six months, but it was always clear which songs were new by how the crowd reacted: if you looked around and only saw one or two people singing, it was a safe bet to assume that it was something new. As I consult the setlist, this appears to be entirely true. During other songs, those classic songs, like “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Where Is My Mind?”, the crowd went bananas. During the show’s final songs, “Vamos”, Joey Santiago spent a few minutes going ballistic on his guitar, milking every last ounce of love from the crows that possibly could by goofing off, as Frank Black stared and grinned. When the song finally concluded, the rare joy pouring out of Black was visible from anywhere in the room, especially as he wandered to the edge of the stage to high-five the fans. A friend of mine joked that, if Frank Black smiled that night, spring would come early. Considering just how happy he was there at the end, I’m surprised summer hasn’t come early.
  6. That joy was not the norm, though. And that was part of the bizarre spectacle, and it’s why I was driven to write this review in the way I have written it: the show was great, but it may not have been good. The band was on top of their game, enough that they blasted through 31 songs in just over an hour-and-a-half, never seeming to miss a beat. They managed to capture every nuance of every song, from the woozy stumbling of “Caribou” to the goofiness of “La La Love You” (featuring an equally crowd-milking David Lovering continuing his criminally underrated croon for a minute longer than usual, though it was all in good fun). Everything sounded like it did on those records, but maybe that’s the problem: in replicating the atmosphere of those songs, the band may have forgotten to put their hearts into it. It’s unfair to say that it was “phoned in”, but I don’t doubt that the argument could be made very well.

    Pixies // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

    Pixies // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

  7. A quick, brief note about Paz Lenchantin: she’s no Kim Deal, but absolutely nobody will every be Kim, not even Kelley Deal, her identical twin. I spent a few songs with my eyes closed, and if I lost myself in the music just enough, I could forget that it wasn’t her. But, then, it’s never that easy, is it? Deal was the strange, wonderful heart of Pixies, and even though Lenchantin did a great Deal impression, she could not manage to capture that which made her integral to the band. And that is absolutely not her fault.
  8. I keep going back and forth about what I thought of the show, and the truth is, I’m still somewhat unsure. So, I’ll break it down like this: as a whole, the show was fantastic, and it was everything that I wanted, and possibly a little more. I knew going in that I was going to be seeing a band that I love in a slightly weakened state, and got a band that was still incredibly intense, and powerful, and fun. But, that show could have been so much more if that ice-breaker moment, in which Joey Santiago played his guitar backwards, were one of the first moments of the show, and the band had spent 31 songs enjoying themselves and the impact they’ve had with (almost) each and every one of them. I would have been happier if I’d seen a band less marred by the tyranny of distance, and had let the crowd see them as something more than one of the world’s best, but most dysfunctional, bands. Pixies may never again be the band we expect them to be, but that does not change the fact that you should, above all, go see them and make up your own minds about them.
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