21 Aug 2009: Washington, DC
Breeders rock is beautiful in that euphoric, perfect, bubblegum way. But it’s also fractured and deformed. Like a one-legged runway model or a beautiful baby who just doesn’t look quite right (maybe a touch of the downs or fetal alcohol syndrome). The music doesn’t go where we expect it to. We are distracted by its catchiness and arrested by its twisted rictus. It’s why the Breeders, more than any other band (except, well, the Pixies, right?), own that sweet spot between arty punk and sweet hearted pop. Mesmerizing, and even after all these years, the chord changes surprise us with their skewed, out-of-step progression. Imagine if Blink 182 et al had taken their cue from the Breeders instead of the straight-ahead sped up blues of Stiff Little Fingers and the Buzzcocks. The ‘90s would have been a lot more interesting, that’s for sure.
Listening to “No Aloha”, the first song performed by the Breeders after taking the stage with effervescent smiles all around, we are treated to straightforward but infinitely satisfying chugging rhythm guitar. But beyond that, the song is so weird. The guitar notes strain and bend and stand up on their tiptoes as if to reach some great height. Meanwhile Kim blows spoken-word smoke rings around her mic, her ethereal vocals bringing at least superficial significance to otherwise nonsensical lyrics. “Motherhood means mental freeze,” indeed.
Even “Cannonball”, which has achieved pop cultural ubiquity even in the mainstream, is pretty whack, but in the best way. The crowd erupted when Kim began chanting the opening “A-Hoooom Hmmmm” into a foghorn. Then—one of the most instantly recognizable bass riffs ever followed by the clickety-clack of drumsticks. You’d think that the band would be sick of playing their one semi-hit, but they seemed overjoyed to have the opportunity to play it one more time. Kim joked awkwardly with the crowd, like a tipsy person trying to not come off as tipsy, but her exuberance made up for any bad jokes.
The night’s enthusiasm could be attributed to some fun serendipity. Current bassist Mando Lopez took the night off to help his wife through childbirth, so original bassist Josephine Wiggs took over with almost no opportunity to rehearse. Though the rest of the group shared a few giggles during her performances of some of the band’s recent output from Title TK and this year’s Mountain Battles, you’d have thought she never left the band. Everything sounded “on”. New songs included “Bang On”, a cheerleading tune with an almost hip-hop beat, and “Walk It Off”, a warped, unabashedly Pixies-esque number.
They stuck mostly to material from Last Splash and Pod, leaving no one with the desire to shout out any requests. They even threw us a few Amps songs, “Tipp City” and “Hovering”, complete with bratty percussion from Kim and Kelly’s chopped ‘n’ screwed vocals modulated by drummer Jose Mendelez. Kim dusted off her fiddle for “Drivin’ on 9”, plucking and swinging along with rolling tumbleweed percussion. The Deals make little effort to sing in unison, but when their voices accidentally sync up, it’s a sublime thing. Twin sirens leaning forward, eyes closed, projecting girlish cuteness over devastating salvos of distortion and ringing feedback. Tonight’s rendition of Iris was a real monster, giving Kim a chance to open up her vocals, with a few visceral squeaks here and there, proving that she’s pushing it to the limit.
Anyone disappointed by the night’s set list may as well just give up on life, because the best material from each album was represented, naturally weighted towards the older stuff. It made me happy when I left the venue without hearing a single request for a Pixies song. Maybe the ongoing Pixies reunion has sated concertgoers’ desire for a taste of that brand of nostalgia, but the show was just that great. One bro did request “Freebird”, but you’ll have that.
We should all be grateful that there’s some creative fix that Kim Deal doesn’t achieve while touring with the Pixies. One gets the feeling she’s still doing that for the money, and keeps schlepping across the globe with the Breeders for the fun of it. Maybe if they’d ever really gone away the Breeders would be playing enormous concert halls instead of the Black Cat. Let’s be happy things didn’t turn out that way.