An informal (and often comedic) minimalist live show proves again that for Black Francis’ people, each new musical experiment only serves to make a classic even better.
Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV is a man of many stages, names and career chapters. Rising to prominence as the frontman of the post-punk band Pixies under the stage name Black Francis, he broke up the band at the height of their popularity, inverted his pseudonym and embarked on a solo career as Frank Black. While fans expected more music in the Pixies’ vibe, Thompson experimented with folk, Christian rock, pop punk and even country in his band Frank Black and the Catholics. After the Catholics’ dissolution and three more alt-country-infused albums, Thompson reverted to the Black Francis name and reenergized his punk influences. He has experimented ever since.
In spite (or because) of this diverse resume, Black Francis is one of the most proficient and consistently satisfying live acts I’ve ever seen -- and I’ve seen him ten times. From his full sets with the Catholics to his Pixies reunion tour to his minimalist singer/ songwriter shows, Thompson (with this many names, it’s easier to simply call him “Thompson”) never gives the same show twice.
The Coach House Concert Hall in San Juan Capistrano, California looks less like a theatre than a 1970s steakhouse with a balcony Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show would be right at home in. There was little opportunity for heckling this night as three performers took the stage in succession, each with a microphone and a guitar and nothing else.
Local boy Davis Fetter led the lineup. With his pompadour, blue Gibson archtop, motorcycle jacket and spectacles, a rockabilly meets Buddy Holly set seemed imminent. Instead Fetter delivered a dynamic song list with a modern surf punk bend, coupled his steady crooning voice (as comfortable on a driving rock song and a light ballad).
Kim Shattuck (guitarist and vocalist for The Muffs) appeared like a stoned fairy on the stage for the second warm-up show. It was almost as much comedy as it was music. Joking with and even insulting the audience, always followed by a cute “just kidding”, Shattuck took crowd suggestions for what songs to play. Bowing and curtsying during each applause break, Shattuck was an excellent reminder of how much fun rock and roll can be, during her screaming Punk moments as well as her sweet singer-songwriter numbers.
Although billed as a “solo acoustic show”, Black Francis’ set was as plugged as those of his opening acts. He took the sparse stage with a classic Fender Telecaster (and two backup Teles that he never touched). Thompson has a history with this venue having played the Coach House many times over the years, once opening for the now-less popular Graham Parker to celebrate the time he took his first wife to see Parker on that same stage. “Somebody just told me it’s been five years since I’ve been here.” Thompson said, elaborating that he couldn’t believe so much time had passed considering his love for the venue.
The show felt like something of a homecoming for the man called “Black”. As if this “intimate” show could get more so, Thompson treated the crowd like special invited guests with whom he could joke and tell stories in between almost every song. Rarely has the singer/ guitarist seemed quite so relaxed and carefree on stage. Occasionally the song, joke or story lost his own interest. “Nevermind, that’s a terrible anecdote,” he mumbled. “I don’t know why I started to play that song [‘My Favorite Kiss’]. Sorry.”
Never to be underestimated as a guitarist, Thompson kept his experimental hat on, playing through multiple generations of his diverse catalogue in casual, yet deceptively complex renditions. His 1993 hit “Los Angeles” was recognizable as soon as the opening chords were struck but 2001’s “Bullet” was something of an enigma throughout its musical introduction until Thompson’s vocals revealed the lyrics. The words to “The Swimmer” and “California Bound” begin as soon as their music does but Thompson’s playful rearrangement of the notes and progressions put a new spin on these crowd-pleasing favorites. This same creative distortion managed to make “Horrible Day” an even more depressing song, surrendering to the company of “Death”, “Misfortune” and “A Chorus of the Lonely”.
As a singer, Thompson was on the top of his game from the deep tones to the falsettos to the patented Pixies screams. Much as he did on the Pixies demos found on the 2004 release Frank Black Francis Thompson experimented with providing his own backing vocals on “Men in Black”, throwing in the eerie faux-Theremin voice sounds into the chorus. Similarly, his chants of “Repent, Repent!” throughout the Pixies' classic “Caribou” took on a stranger, less uniform scream, no less chilling, much more raw.
Although songs old and new were interchangeable throughout the show, as the set wound down Thompson joked that he needed to win the crowd back by returning to “my comfort zone… my first band… the Pixies.” He went on to assure us that although the next song, “Nimrod’s Son”, contained profanity “I would never say ‘Fuck’ in front of a C-H-I-L-D, so you parents don’t have to worry about that.”
In the prime example of Thompson’s Standup Comedy meets VH1’s Storytellers mood, he “treated” the crowd with an abbreviated reenactment of the first 15 minutes of the Pixies’ premiere show in 1986. This consisted of a series of re-tunings followed by the words “Just one second” and “I think I got it” over and over again.
“See, that’s how long ago that was.” Thompson quipped. “We didn’t even have tuners back then.”
This silly antic (not unlike John Lennon’s very literal “Two Minutes of Silence”) may seem trite in black and white, but in person the audience was laughing all the way. He delivered a fun, minimalist and excellent show in front of his people … why not have some laughs with us?
Gracious to the last, Charles “Black Francis” Thompson ended his set with a smile, walked to every corner of the stage for photographs and bows and even shook a few hands before leaving for the night. By any name, Black Francis always gives a unique and diverse show. If this three-stop tour is indicative of the singer’s current state of mind, he is clearly having fun with his career, now more than ever. These songs are not the “album versions”, but for Black Francis’ people, each new experiment only serves to make a classic even better.