Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — or in this case, the Pixies.
The Boston-based alt-rock band’s fascination with fog proved to be a full-on sensory overload for both audience members and the historic Lincoln Theatre alike. Fortunately for fans attending the first of two back-to-back sold-out Washington, D.C. shows last Tuesday, the fire department arrived just as everyone was leaving. Black Francis and his crew didn’t just set off the smoke detectors (sorry no Rilo Kiley choreography observed) during their 95-minute set, but they reminded concert goers they were still in the business of rock n’ roll.
The Beatles helped usher the musicians onstage at about 9 p.m. with the 1970 B-side “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).” The arrogant simplicity of the tune combined with its brilliant catchiness made it a rather appropriate intro. “Gouge Away” — an indie rock take on the biblical story of Samson and Delilah — set the tone for the night by showcasing the vocal dynamic between Charles “Francis” Michael Thompson, a.k.a. Frank Black, and newest member, bassist Paz Lenchantin. Instead of stealing strength from her male counterpart like the aforementioned Old Testament seductress, Paz and her soft, feminine voice energized the lead singer and the band. Francis told Rolling Stone last September that he always envisioned the band’s bassist being female, because there was one in the Talking Heads — duh. It was clear the Argentine-American with the penchant for peonies was no Kim Deal, the original cofounding member who unceremoniously left the band in 2013. That was okay though, because she wasn’t trying to be and those in attendance seemed eagerly curious to hear what she had to offer.
Watch the Pixies perform “Here Comes Your Man” at Lincoln Theatre on May 16, 2017:
Next up was the bubblegum-pop infused “Classic Masher,” the second track off the band’s sixth studio album Head Carrier, released last September. While the newest full-length offering 25 years in the making has been harshly criticized by musical desk jockeys, fans both on and offline have given it fair-to-good reviews. They played a total of nine of their 12 new songs, all of which were quite well received. In an almost strategic crowd-pleasing countermeasure, the group played just over half of their landmark 1989 sophomore endeavor Doolittle. The rest of the set guided the audience down a melodic memory lane, revisiting the college-rock records that originally put them on map: 1987’s EP Come On Pilgrim and 1988’s Surfer Rosa. The Boston Globe reported the “Massachusetts misfits” typically “prepare 70 songs for a tour and pick selections on the fly.” Given most are no more than 3 minutes in length, a 32-song setlist is hardly excessive.
Some of Francis’s vocals were absolutely unintelligible at times — take “Something Against You,” for instance — reaching larynx-destroying levels of sandpaper raspiness. At other times they were quite clear (albeit loud) and encouraged audience accompaniment, even when in sung in a foreign tongue like his tribute to Puerto Rico, “Isla de Encanta” — “Me voy, Me voy, Me voy!” “Ed is Dead” is when it really seemed like the band had started to get into a groove. The sing-a-longs remained steady from that point on, depending on the tune’s obscurity. They stayed true to their loud-quiet-loud signature format throughout the performance.
This “noise” was choreographed with the furious strobes of various floodlights against an industrialized metal stage backdrop, reminiscent of their first “Sell Out” reunion tour in 2004, later documented in the aptly titled movie “Loud Quiet Loud: A Film About the Pixies.” A word of caution for the photosensitive folks who might be interested in seeing this spectacle of light, shadow, and color: Beware. Some people in the know adorned sunglasses to minimize the harsh visual extremes. Also, invest a couple dollars in a pair of foam ear plugs. It’s doubtful inserting fingers in your ears like the man in front of my friend is all that effective.
Watch the Pixies perform “Monkey Gone to Heaven” at Lincoln Theatre on May 16, 2017:
It almost goes without saying that the major highlights of night included many of the time-honored radio-friendly favorites like the environmentally cautioning “Monkey Gone to Heaven.” Nearly everyone in the 1,225-seat venue knew every word to this hit single and they fingerspelled each numeric line in unison while almost screaming along. “Where Is My Mind” — a song Fight Club exposed to a new generation of ears — was recognizable upon the few extra opening acoustic guitar chords. Guitarist Joey Santiago, Francis, and Paz joined together in a semi-huddle, smiling, and bopping their heads back and forth as they commenced “Here Comes Your Man.” “Hey” might really be the only time where there was any major vocal exchange between the band and the audience. There wasn’t much — if any — commentary, just music. Drummer/magician David Lovering seemed to enjoy every hard-hitting second of “Wave of Mutilation.”
The ending is something that should be left to experience in person, and because of that, you’ll find no spoilers here. Trust me, it’s worth seeing live.
Francis told Vogue last October, “As a band, we don’t really have a lot of boxes that we have to tick. The only box that we have to tick is that we don’t want to be boring.” If they keep heading in the direction they’re going and stay true to their “we don’t care what the f–k you think, we’re going to do what we want” ethos, that shouldn’t be a problem. But next time you’re in D.C., try not to involve the city safety authorities.
Here are some photos of the Pixies performing at the Lincoln Theatre on May 16, 2017. All photos copyright and courtesy of Theresa C. Sanchez.