The Breeders
Photo: K. Rector / Grandstand Media

The Breeders and Belly Party Like It’s 1993 in San Francisco

The Breeders are touring for the 30-year-anniversary of their breakthrough album Last Splash, playing the alternative rock classic in its entirety each night.

It’s a Monday night in downtown San Francisco on October 23, but it feels more like a Saturday because the Warfield Theater is packed for one of the fall season’s hottest tours. The Breeders are touring for the 30-year-anniversary of their breakthrough album Last Splash, playing the alternative rock classic in its entirety each night. The 1990s were a different era in the music biz, where a hit video on MTV like the Breeders had with “Cannonball” could rocket a band to national popularity and touring to spur album sales to Gold or Platinum levels.

Initially formed by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly as a side project to their other bands (Pixies and Throwing Muses), the Breeders became Deal’s full-time band after the Pixies broke up. This was around the same time Donelly left to focus on her new band Belly, which also broke big in 1993 with their debut LP Star. The 2023 tour’s West Coast run is a special double dip treat for alternative rock fans, with the Breeders bringing Belly on as the opening act.

Belly surged to alt-rock stardom in 1993 on the strength of the hit video for their psychedelic power pop gem “Feed the Tree”. They headlined the Warfield that year with an opening act by the name of Radiohead (who didn’t make a big impression that night.) Belly even made the cover of the Rolling Stone as “The Shiny, Happy People of Post-Punk Power Pop”. After breaking up in 1996 when 1995’s underrated King album didn’t match the success of Star, Donelly went on as a successful solo artist while bassist Gail Greenwood crushed on bass with L7 and others. But Belly reformed in 2016. and it’s great to see the classic lineup back together with Greenwood and brothers Tom and Chris Gorman on guitar and drums. 

“Dusted” kicks off the set to get things rocking, and it’s a real trip to see Belly back onstage at the Warfield. “Super-Connected” is an early highlight, featuring Donelly’s angelic voice over a pulsing groove from Greenwood and the Gorman brothers. Greenwood is a dynamic groove goddess throughout the set and surely doesn’t look like she’s aged three decades. She takes a moment to acknowledge the occasion, saying, “It’s an honor of a lifetime” to be playing with the Breeders for the first time on this run. “Red” is another gem, featuring a melodic surge on the song’s chorus that feels like going a level up on the gearshift of the soul. “Slow Dog” and “Now They’ll Sleep” feature infectious hooks as well, as listeners are reminded of how Belly is a band with a uniquely vibrant sound.

“Are you guys ready to party like it’s the late 1900’s?” Greenwood asks the audience as the set nears the end. The response is favorable, with one fan yelling back, “You still got it, baby!” Greenwood and Belly still have it as they deliver a dazzling performance of “Feed the Tree” that registers a big spike on the flux capacitor. It’s only too bad the song is over in about three and a half minutes since it could have a stellar jam.

There’s a standard 30-minute set break, during which time it’s excellent to snag an Anchor Steam tallboy at the bar to help invoke that 1990s vibe. The godfather of the modern craft beer boom sadly announced it’s going out of business earlier this year after mismanagement from corporate parent Sapporo and a drop in business since local bars that suffered during the damnable Covid-19 pandemic were a significant sector of the brewery’s business. Production has ceased, and so the coveted hop juice has become an endangered species, but props to the Warfield for still having some in stock (as well as for stocking the newer Fieldwork Pulp hazy IPA for a welcome upgrade in the venue’s bar menu quality with a newer regional favorite.)

The Breeders hit the stage at 9:15 and get right down to business with Last Splash, as the energy in the room surges on the opening track, “New Year”. This serves as a prelude to the smash hit “Cannonball” that follows. The distinctively groovy bass line and melodic guitars mesh for another flashback to that more innocent era of 1993. Yet, as with Belly’s “Feed the Tree”, the fun vibe of “Cannonball” lasts for only about three and a half minutes. But what made Last Splash so formidable was the album’s depth, and so the fun is still just getting started. 

Singer/guitarist Kim Deal brings an angelic voice of her own to the stage on “Invisible Man”, with a heavy chorus powered by the formidable rhythm section of bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim Macpherson. Then there are the shimmery yet grungey guitars from the Deal sisters that helped epitomize how the alt-rock revolution could merge darkness and brightness, such as on “Aloha”. Kim Deal stars again on “Do You Love Me Now?”, a downbeat love song that segues seamlessly into the upbeat rocker of “Flipside”. The crisp bass line and the rocking beat get the crowd grooving as time and space continue flowing with that glorious 1990s vibe. 

Kelly Deal takes a moment to ask everyone if they know that the band recorded the record in San Francisco, with Kim noting that it was also mixed across the Bay at the Record Plant in Sausalito. Kelly adds that “It’s been a real treat” to have Belly opening the shows on this West Coast run, “but enough about Tanya and Kim, it’s time for me to shine!” And shine she does on lead vocals for “I Just Wanna Get Along”, the electrifying first track from Side B of Last Splash to provide one of the night’s top shining moments.

“Divine Hammer” soon follows with another peak moment as the Breeders rock out on another of the album’s ever-infectious melodic gems. The harmonies between the Deal sisters have a transcendent quality here, with the song serving as a magic carpet ride to a higher dimension of sonic bliss. It’s also worth noting here that the 30th Anniversary Edition of Last Splash features a second version of the song titled “Divine Mascis”, with J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. (who headlined the Warfield themselves in 1994) on lead vocal with the Deal sisters adding great backing vocals.

The Breeders keep the energy flowing into the hard rocking “S.O.S” as the set’s momentum builds. “Saints” is another mid-tempo rocker with a high-energy vibe where the Deal sisters shine as the grunge goddesses they are, particularly in light of how there are too few women in modern rock doing anything like this. Then there’s “Driving on 9”, a catchy road song with a country flavor where Kim Deal continues to charm. A fiddle player also appears to reproduce the penultimate track’s Americana sound before a rocking “Roi” reprise closes the set.

The Breeders leave the stage for just a few minutes as the lights go down before they return for an extended encore that functions more like an additional set. The sequence starts with Pixies’ 1988 classic “Gigantic”, getting the Warfield rocking again in a big way. It’s a song about “a big, big love”, and there’s a lot of love in the room here, as there has been throughout the set. “Doe” from 1990’s debut LP, Pod, is another crowd pleaser as evening’s repertoire expands. Kim Deal asks if anyone is from the Midwest, receiving a few cheers as she introduces a song about walking on scary roads, of which there are many on gray days in Ohio. “Walking with a Killer” from 2018’s All Nerve has a spooky vibe fitting for the Halloween season, sounding like it could come from a soundtrack in the 1980s heyday of scary movies. 

The Breeders deliver a climactic moment with the Beatles‘ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, featuring Tanya Donelly assisting as she did when the Breeders recorded it on Pod. It’s mind-boggling to think that the song was 22 years old when they recorded it in 1990, and now they’re playing it here 33 years later.   Seeing Donelly and Kim Deal performing together is indeed heartwarming, as the entire evening has been, for that matter. Donelly sticks around for “When I Was a Painter”, featuring more of the Breeders’ fuzzy melodic goodness with their classic loud-soft-loud formula that was influential in the alternative rock revolution. 

The influence of that musical revolution may have seemed to wane in the early 21st century. But recent years have seen the impact of the alt-rock era in the late 1980s and early 1990s prove to be an enduringly profound influence on the music world, which makes nights like tonight even more gratifying.