“Say to Me, Where Have You Been?”: The Pixies Roar Back After 12 Years
Nothing was more surprising than when the Pixies announced in September of 2003 that they were getting back together for the first time since their highly acrimonious break-up in 1992. After all, this was one band reunion we thought we’d never see; hey, if you got a fax saying you were fired, wouldn’t you be just a little bit ticked off? The announcement was met with a rather jaded reaction by critics and indie rock fans, as many people expected the reunion to implode within months. That said, over the past decade, the Pixies have become far more popular than they were in their heyday, a fact driven home by the unprecedented demand for tickets when the band announced their spring “warm up” tour, as every show sold out quickly, many in mere minutes. But would the band even last that long before getting at each other’s throats again?
A band years ahead of its time, the Pixies foreshadowed the early ‘90s alternative rock explosion with their classic albums, 1988’s Surfer Rosa and the 1989 masterpiece Doolittle. With singer/guitarist Black Francis’s powerful vocals that ranged from a whisper to a full-on scream, his enigmatic lyrics which ranged from topics like Salvador Dali to UFOs, the hip Kim Deal’s melodic bass lines and her charming voice, and Joey Santiago’s cool, seemingly effortless guitar leads, this was a band whose music was as accessible as it was adventurous. By now, everyone knows how big a Pixies fan Kurt Cobain was, and as he went on to attempt to write his own version of a Pixies tune (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and work with a Pixies producer (Steve Albini, the man behind the booming, grating sounds of Surfer Rosa), the Pixies themselves still struggled for mainstream recognition. After two more tragically underrated albums (1990’s Bossanova and 1991’s Trompe le Monde), and with increasing friction among the band members, Francis called it a day with his infamous announcement in 1992.
The four members of the band went their separate ways in the ‘90s, but could never shake the “Ex-Pixies” tag. Francis, who changed his name to Frank Black, went on to have a steady, if unspectacular, solo career, releasing nine albums. Deal flirted with mainstream success, thanks to the Breeders’ well-received 1993 album Last Splash, but her band took nine years to record a follow-up and by then, not many people cared anymore. Santiago kept a lower profile, guesting on various albums, including a couple of Frank Black records, while drummer David Lovering went on to have the weirdest solo career, calling himself a “Scientific Phenomenalist,” developing a bizarre magic act that had him making pickles glow while wearing a white lab coat. As the band tried to make names for themselves on their own, the Pixies’ work continued to grow in stature, aided by the compilation Death to the Pixies, the odd appearance of a song in a well-known movie (Fight Club, for instance), and word-of mouth that continued long after the break-up. The timing really couldn’t be better for a Pixies reunion; when you hear the obvious Pixies homage in the verses of Outkast’s massively popular single “Hey Ya”, you know the rest of the world has finally caught up.
Starting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, crossing the vast Canadian prairies, and venturing down into the smaller centers in the Pacific Northwest, the Pixies’ current tour is one that had fans in larger cities incredulous, but as it turns out, the band could not have found a better place to start. In these smaller locales, an entire generation of Pixies fans grew up without having a chance to see the band in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the reaction was guaranteed to be a lot more positive than the more jaded audiences in cities like New York and Toronto.
Four days after the band’s energetic, yet clunky opening show in Minneapolis (which surfaced on the net via bit torrent only two hours after the last song was played), the Pixies arrived in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The sleepy little university city of a quarter million had suddenly become a gathering point for Pixies fans, thanks to some smart organizing by the local promoters. Tickets for the concert went on sale several hours after the other shows on the tour, and when they saw cities like Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver sell out 1,000 capacity venues in less than ten minutes, the promoters decided to expand the hall, giving people who missed out on tickets in the bigger cities the option to come out to Saskatoon instead. The tactic worked brilliantly, as the Saskatoon show became the largest indoor venue on the spring tour; by the day of the show, 5,000 tickets had been sold, as Pixies fans from all over North America traveled all the way out to the middle of nowhere, just to see a little history in the making.
Saskatoon’s Prairieland Park, which is basically a massive warehouse, was packed to the gills (ranging from people in their forties to teenagers), with hundreds of fans braving the chilly, 30 degree weather hours before the doors opened. The band quietly took the small, modestly lit stage at 10:00 to a rousing reception, Deal offering back a casual “Hey,” and when Lovering launched into the distinctive drum intro to the Surfer Rosa classic “Bone Machine”, it kicked off what would be 90 minutes of bedlam. As opposed to the sloppy performance at the Minneapolis show, the version of the song on this night was much tighter, Deal’s bass right on the money, Santiago’s leads searing, and Black in fine form, sneering lines like, “I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss.”
“Hi Dave! Hi Kim! Hi Joey!” said Black playfully after the first song. It was clear the band had benefited from the day off after three consecutive gigs; all four members were obviously in high spirits. Deal wore a constant grin throughout the show (saying at one point, “Thanks…we’ve never played in ‘Satchitoons’”), and the normally gruff Black seemed to be buoyed by the huge crowd, cracking smiles, and joking with Deal between songs. When you see Black make goofy antlers with his fingers while singing “Caribou”, you know it’s going to be a good night.
What has especially pleased fans is the band’s continual tinkering with the set list every night, as every show so far has differed greatly from the others. One thing that has remained constant has been the band’s focus on Doolittle, Surfer Rosa, and the 1987 Come on Pilgrim EP. On this night, 13 songs would be from Come On Pilgrim/Surfer Rosa, while nine Doolittle songs would surface. Only “Velouria” and the raucous “U-Mass” (which incited a frenzy of crowd surfing) would represent Bossanova and Trompe le Monde.
After fierce performances of “No. 13 Baby”, “Cactus”, and “River Euphrates”, the band launched into a spectacular stretch of 15 consecutive classic songs, beginning with “Where is My Mind?”, as the crowd sang along to Deal’s distinctive harmony vocals. A scorching rendition of “Vamos” had Santiago shining on lead guitar, while “Debaser” and “Tame” had Black sounding as good as he ever has before. The crowd was simply bowled over time and again by great song after great song, and by the end, it was complete euphoria on the floor. You had the pure pop of “Here Comes Your Man”, a slinky, slowed down version of “Nimrod’s Son”, the tour’s first performances of the Doolittle standouts “Hey” and “I Bleed”, and a note-perfect version of “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, which produced the evening’s most memorable image: Black screaming at the top of his lungs, “If the Devil is six, then God is seven!”, perfectly framed by a fan’s upraised arms, five fingers raised in one hand, two in the other.
After an encore which featured a flat-out brilliant segue of “In Heaven” (sung by Deal) into the slow, dreamy “Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf)”, it was time for things to get a bit more surreal. As the packed house was anticipating a second encore, the house lights suddenly went up right before the band returned (eliciting furious expressions from the guys at the sound board), but as the band launched into the frenzied, sweaty, punk-fueled closing set of “Isla de Encanta”, “Broken Face”, “Something Against You”, and “Levitate Me”, it created an oddly intimate atmosphere in the fully-lit venue, enabling the band to make eye contact with everybody on the floor. Before the band called it a night, the four members stood at the front of the stage, drinking in the huge cheers, appearing floored by the reaction, exhilarated, and yes, even happy.
Perhaps the most ingenious idea the Pixies have had on this tour was to team up with the recording outfit DiscLive, who have developed a way to professionally record each show and sell CDs of the performance to fans immediately after the concert. The Pixies tour is DiscLive’s first high-profile event, and so far, the process has been very well-run, as the excellently-mixed, nicely packaged CDs were handed out to fans no more than fifteen minutes after the band left the stage. With something as well-run as this, it’s clear that it will only be a matter of time before other bands jump on the bandwagon.
As fans gathered outside, still in awe of the show, excitedly discussing the night’s song selections, it was evident to everyone that the rust is quickly disappearing the more concerts the Pixies play. After this night’s near-flawless performance, it’s clear that the “warm-up” portion of the tour is over. The band is starting to find its groove, proof that these four individuals are in it for the long haul, and by the time the band launches its full-scale tour this fall, they should be firing on all cylinders. The Pixies themselves seem to like what they’re hearing, too. “Yeah, it’s slowly coming together,” said a friendly Santiago after the show. “But what was with the lights?”