Pixies live in concert: Setlist outshines performance

Nov. 8, 2016, 10:10 a.m.

After unsuccessfully trying to sneak my way in to cover this 21+ concert, I sat outside Santa Cruz’s The Catalyst wondering what I would be missing in a Pixies’ live show. After growing accustomed to listening to the same late ’80’s and early ’90’s studio material while staring at the same four static album covers (let’s not include Indie Cindy), I thought that their new “Head Carrier” indeed offered new studio material, but a live show would have offered something different. Here, I could have experienced this band’s music with senses beyond hearing. I could see how they visually expressed the raw emotion they belted on their studio tracks.

I finally managed to finesse my way into the concert after making some calls. Shaking away my FOMO daze, I made my way into the concert. A great enthusiasm enveloped the crowd as the opening act Waterstrider played with a passion that could prime any audience for the main act that was to come.

Don’t get me wrong, I had my doubts. With a band as old as Pixies (their frontman aged 51) releasing a new comeback album, I couldn’t help but fear the worst: Would it be a promotional tour or a fanservice show? What would the setlist be? A constant call to the audience informing them that “this next song is off our new album”? A playthrough of their greatest hits album?

As I grew increasingly wary of the main act, Pixies strolled onstage to the applause of a diverse crowd. With the lights fully up, I saw them for the first time. UCSC frat boys dominated the front and center of the floor, ready to mosh at the insistence of any guitar chord or bass drum kick. It’s an odd cycle. Pixies rose as a college rock act, many critics pegging their musical trope as an asymptote to their quality. Even Steve Albini, the producer of their first full album, remarked that Pixies were “a band who, at their top-dollar best, are blandly entertaining college rock.” Eventually, they transcended this prophecy in their short career. And between the time they broke up in 1993 and fully reformed 20 years later, they had jumped a generation. The class of ‘93 college students who flailed in their flannels at the live debut of “Debaser” and “Velouria” now stood in the back of The Catalyst, wrinkled in pocketed khakis with a beer in hand, leaning back ever so slightly in unexpecting judgment.

They quickly gave the crowd a look and picked up their instruments. Black Francis glanced at the setlist next to David Lovering’s drumkit, eyed Paz Lenchantin on bass and Joey Santiago on guitar, and nodded as the band began playing “Gauge Away.” A song with such a raspy chorus, “Gauge Away” made me realize my other fear for the Pixies: their age. Without the benefit of multiple takes in the studio, how would Black Francis’s guttural screaming sound live?

As the band collectively plunged into the chorus with an unexpected strength, my fear was cured. A crowd-favorite from the acclaimed “Doolittle,” “Gauge Away” very smoothly transitioned into “Head Carrier”’s lead single, “Um Chagga Lagga.” For the remainder of the concert, old gave way to new and vice versa, as Pixies had a secret weapon to deliver their new album to the masses. Rather than explicitly inform the audience of their new album by playing a lot of new songs in a row, Pixies had the gall to place their new music right next to acclaimed fan-favorites, an attempt to force some “Head Carrier” songs into the Pixies canon. And it worked. Songs were perfectly placed together, equally drawn from different portions of Pixies’ career. The greatest testament to their confidence in their setlist came at the very end of the show. As they came back onstage after the audience cooed them back for an encore, fans expected them to play one of their biggest hits, “Debaser.” However, as the Pixies strutted back on stage, they smugly glanced at each other and played a deep cut B-side, “Into the White,” originally sung by Kim Deal but now replaced by Paz Lenchantin.

Unfortunately, as for the show itself, it never came anywhere near the masterfully crafted setlist. Lights aggressively flickered and flashed behind the quartet, inaccurately insinuating a likewise lively performance. Although Pixies are known for not having the most animated shows, their Santa Cruz performance was undeniably more standstill than normal at many points. There was rarely any interaction between the band, even less with the crowd. The only real movement came from Black Francis at the end of each song, when he’d meander back to Lovering’s drumset to take another look at the setlist to see the next song they had to play. Some songs even featured uncharacteristic wrong notes and false starts from the precise Joey Santiago and perfectionist Black Francis. Lenchantin, trying to fill void left by Kim Deal in both vocal skill and stage presence, came a little short on both accounts, offering mediocre vocals and moving at most from the microphone to a few steps behind it.

However, the errors and lack of enthusiasm are forgivable. The Catalyst was their first show with “Head Carrier,” described as one of four North American “warm-up shows” for their 2016 European tour and yet-to-be-announced North American tour. Assuming these errors are corrigible and the setlist somewhat remains constant, the upcoming Pixies shows will become increasingly engaging and will showcase a wonderfully diverse set of songs for listeners old and new to discover and la la love.


Contact Dylan Grosz at dgrosz ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Dylan is a senior majoring in Symbolic Systems-AI and minoring in Economics. He very much enjoys playing guitar, listening to music, and reading FiveThirtyEight. As a Senior Data Team Writer for The Stanford Daily, Dylan hopes to offer his data-driven approach to journalism as a vessel for others to navigate the vast, stormy seas of society. He will also usually do so in an overly dramatic metaphor.

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