It’s Thursday night and the third night of the Pixies’ five day residency at London’s legendary Roundhouse, celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the classics ‘Come On Pilgrim’ and ‘Surfer Rosa’. Reports suggest that last night’s show was amazing, so tonight, already knowing that both releases will be played in full and the band appear to be on form (actually talking to each other for long enough to stage such an event is a start), everyone is expecting good things. For any band to take up such a residency is a brave move – even a band with a huge back catalogue – but for Pixies, it’s a move that seems incredibly bold, considering both discs only total approximately fifty two minutes’ worth of music.
It’s only ten past eight, but the steampunk-ish circular auditorium is almost full, even though it’s already known their will be no support act. Ambient noises fill the air. Fairly quickly, the house lights dim and the seven video screens positioned around the stage begin to project disjointed images. A voice talks about obtaining perfection between visual art and music. As various images connected with the band’s past are gradually witnessed, the voice-over gives further insights into both records’ artwork. This is both striking and interesting…to a point.
It’s now twenty minutes later and the voice drifting from the speakers is still talking. Granted, this been a more worthwhile experience than when Eels filled the support slot with an animated film of Russian icon Cheburashka on their ‘With Strings’ tour, or a completely imbibed Clapton found it funny to be warmed up by a Punch & Judy show in ’76 (surely an influence for the now legendary Spinal Tap puppet show scene), but this reminiscence of the creation of Pixies artwork is now starting to feel a bit like an art-school lecture and should have been over in half the time.
The monitors go black. The audience cheers. Surely Pixies are about to emerge…?
Nope. With a buzz and a crackle, the monitors start showing various images again and the ambient music continues. If this is their way of creating pre-gig tension, it’s really not working – it’s gone from atmospheric to irritating, with another false start and more ambient noise. It’s now approximately 8.50.
At the point where it feels like 9pm might even be the kick off, a couple of figures finally appear. Guitarist Joey Santiago takes place at stage right/audience left, sporting the kind of white suit that possibly hasn’t been seen since 1977. Less flamboyant, Charles Ketteridge Thompson IV (aka Black Francis/Frank Black) positions himself behind the microphone in the centre. Wearing an oversized flat cap and sunglasses, it’s as if Francis wishes to remain disconnected from those in the crowd. David Lovering takes the drum stool and the fantastic Paz Lenchantin [formerly of A Perfect Circle/Zwan and a replacement for Kim Deal since 2013] picks up her bass. As the intro to ‘Caribou’ emerges from the speakers, with a hard twang, the minimalist lighting and huge presence of video screens has the effect of making the rhythm section look like silhouettes. As the higher registers of Black’s voice call out over the audience, there’s immediately a feeling that – despite a slightly laborious build up – this will, indeed, have the potential to be a fabulous show. Beyond a slightly muddy bass, ‘Caribou’ is played meticulously.
Into ‘Vamos’, and the band’s bass sounds have levelled out and Black’s vocals are clear…or as clear as they’ll ever be. The middle of the audience bursts into life. ‘Vamos’ seems every bit as jagged as its studio counterpart in a performance that really accentuates Lenchantin’s rigid bass work and gives a great insight into how Santiago makes those ungodly whirring noises with his guitar. Black yelps and barks as if he’s possessed by demons or has been poisoned by something bad hidden in a piñata. After this, the even more intense ‘Isla De Encanta’ is poised to blow off the roof. With Black yelping in Spanish in an almost incoherent manner and Lovering smashing the hell out of his drum kit, it quickly becomes an early highlight of the set.
An appropriate time to greet the crowd, Black Francis is now just standing on stage. There’s an awkward silence as he turns away from the microphone, looks at Santiago, then turns further away from the crowd and wipes his brow. Without a word – aside from the giant video screen alerting everyone to the fact – the band launch into the more melodic ‘Ed Is Dead’ which again sounds flawless on this occasion. Interestingly, the stalls seem to react more positively to this number than the two (arguably superior) Spanish oriented tunes: a mass of bodies are now bouncing and a young woman has climbed upon her boyfriend’s shoulders. The band by now appear so deep into their work that the crowd might as well be absent.
Bringing the number to a close, finally, Black Francis addresses the crowd. He has a cautionary message. “Last night”, he says, “somebody broke their leg. A really bad one – bone poking out. So, if you could find some way of showing enjoyment without bouncing or climbing…”. This interaction is very obviously unplanned. It will also be one of his last. The riff from ‘Holiday Song’ sounds amazing tonight and the crowd reacts accordingly with an even larger mass of heaving bodies which continues to intensify throughout ‘Nimrod’s Son’, with Pixies completely entrenched in recreating the studio recording so tightly. Lovering anchors some terrific grooves throughout and at this point – at least musically – it’s clear that Pixies are an amazing bunch of musicians, often better than Black’s vocal performances sometimes deserve. ‘I’ve Been Tired’ finds Black’s near spoken vocal parts approached with extra pace, while the music has a particular punch, thanks to Lenchantin who’s not just reproducing Deal’s old bass lines perfectly but better. Closing the first act, ‘Levitate Me’ takes on a menacing darkness and the angst within the stalls increases, even with the over-riding feeling that the gig will get better.
Before the second main feature, a breather, of sorts… A musical interlude offers some strong but more sedate performances of tracks not on the two featured albums, but actually dating back further to the Pixies demo tape. ‘Down To The Well’ shows off some great dual vocals but otherwise feels a bit anticlimactic; ‘Build High’ and ‘Rock a My Soul’ are well played and well received but, by now, thoughts are very much moving forward to the ‘Surfer Rosa’ set. Before that, comes the best part of the interlude, though, as the band indulge in a spooky as hell take on David Lynch’s ‘Lady In The Radiator Song’ from Eraserhead. The slowest number so far, it’s spacious air captures Paz’s lead vocals well and the echo in the venue only helps to make everything seem even more otherworldly. Okay…since most of these have comprised an encore for the previous Roundhouse shows this week, who knows what we’ll get later on tonight…
The faithful retelling of the Pixies’ second release, ‘Surfer Rosa’, begins in earnest. ‘Bone Machine’ is angular and arty. Its almost broken collection of noises is a welcome reminder of how this band re-defined rock for a generation, with Black screeching like an insane person and Paz lurching back and forth on some rather long legs, before the ultra short ‘Broken Face’ and ‘Something Against You’ act as a welcome assault on the audience – the front-centre of which has gone into a complete meltdown. Even the usually sedate area at stage left/audience right has started to shuffle with the odd person pogoing. There were no signs of life down there when The Replacements played a couple of years back, or during Devin Townsend’s unique one time only show Retinal Circus, so it comes as a surprise. Next up, one of the Pixies’ genuine hits, gives Paz a ‘Gigantic’ opportunity to shine. Taking on Kim’s old basslines and lead vocal throughout this more commercial track, she’s a superb fit for the band in the present. The fanboys still mourning Deal’s absence are so wide of the mark here – and what could have been the show’s trickiest four minutes go off without even the slightest wobble. It’s a testament to a great rock song, but also to fine musicianship from all. The moodier ‘River Euphrates’ comes and goes with a huge riff and random collection of Pixies related images (all good, but nothing tonight is as striking as the Smashing Pumpkins ‘Shiny & Oh So Bright audio/visual extravaganza); the cheers bleed into a distinctive banshee wail and ‘Where Is My Mind?’ fills the air. Seemingly everybody’s favourite, the phones are out filming en masse, but it really isn’t anywhere near as exciting as most of the set so far. It’s pleasant. It’s obviously still wildly popular with the majority of fans. Tonight has already brought much better things.
‘Cactus’ – an underrated number – displays a huge rock crunch and, tonight, even with Black’s shriek in top form, it’s hard not to think of Bowie and his respectful cover from 2002. Even almost three years after his death, the spirit of Bowie colours most great art and even though this number is only his by appropriation, it still seems like it’s his somehow. It’s great to hear it live at full volume. ‘Tony’s Theme’ and ‘Oh My Golly!’ seem positively spiteful. Here and gone in less than four minutes, it’s Pixies on full power and even during ‘Tony’s Theme’ with it’s razor sharp vocal interjections and spoken passage, again, Deal is not obviously missed.
“I’m not sure why this is on both records”, Black informs the crowd, regarding a re-appearance of ‘Vamos’, before asking Joey why. Joey doesn’t seem to know either but a promise is made to ensure a second performance is different from the first…and it really, really is. Despite Pixies having sweated through the past twenty three songs with barely a pause, the ‘Vamos’ reprise seems faster and angrier somehow; Santiago’s guitar lines are ugly and wonderful at once, until his extended showpiece midway finds him throwing out various noises and using his guitar jack to turn feedback into all kinds of amusing shapes. It must be particularly hard on David Lovering, too, since all the while everyone’s watching Joey, he’s there maintaining a fast and absolutely rigid beat, almost with the tightness of a human click track. Finally, the double whammy of ‘I’m Amazed’ and ‘Brick Is Red’ brings the set to a close with a feeling of ferocity. The jagged indie rock of the former almost has a rockabilly vibe underneath the discordant guitar parts, with everything completely driven by another superb performance from Paz, before ‘Brick Is Red’ almost sounds like a hard and twangy throwback to parts of ‘Caribou’ and ‘Ed Is Dead’. They’re both better live, performed with extra gusto, but there’s not natural feeling of closure, no winding down or climax. The album dictates this is the end, though, so that’s that.
The four musicians move to the front of the stage and take a theatrical bow. Lovering moves back towards his kit, so it seems like more is in order…but with the previous shows’ encores having already been played, what’s in store? Quickly, the venue fills with the juxtaposed thrashy guitar and rigid bass sounds of ‘Tame’, with Black absolutely caning his voice. The album track is in and out in just under two minutes, but tonight, like a couple of the ‘Surfer Rosa’ numbers, this solitary pick from the classic ‘Doolittle’ feels even more urgent. It ends too soon and he band exits the stage quickly without a word. It’s not clear that’s it. Is that it? Are they coming back for ‘Planet of Sound’? ‘Debaser’? ‘Alec Eiffel’? ‘Crackity Jones’? ‘Gouge Away’? ‘Velouria’? Surely they’ve got one or two of those in reserve for a big finish…?
The screen is now displaying the word FIN in giant letters. Given the length of this set and the lack of interaction, it might just as well say FUCK OFF.
Tonight’s performance has, in the main, been such a meticulous revisiting of the first two Pixies records (including the original studio banter reproduced verbatim), that it might have been more interesting if things had been switched around, or perhaps a couple of different songs dropped in, just to keep the audience on their toes. Then again, that wasn’t the remit. It has been a bit too short: at approximately sixty eight minutes in total and with so much good material sidelined, it’s gone by in a flash. The question is, when should you look at a gig’s length in relation to the inflated ticket price and wonder if you’ve been cheated? Is this one of those times?
It could be one of these times but, despite not quite always having the unrestrained approach of the Pixies’ former years, the music has come across with such fervour for the audience that it’s actually hard to argue against it being a great show. For some, it’s been an opportunity to cross Pixies off their bucket list and for others, a great chance to reconnect with an old favourite band at a superb venue. With Pixies now resting somewhere between true pioneers and rock’s elder statesmen, tonight has been too short, but they’ve played a blinder. Hovering over that fine line where arrogance becomes belligerence, there’s a nagging feeling they know it, too.