The Pixies: 30.Nov.09 – Washington DC

Strange though it may seem, the jury is still out on the Pixies’ live show. For every fan who insists that the band’s live sets are life-changing, you’ll find another who asserts that the Pixies are shoddy performers and always were. Lingering behind this polarization is the band’s considerable legacy; it weighs heavily in any discussion of its merits, inviting revision from the few who did witness the Pixies in their heyday. Regardless, this year’s reunion tour–on which the band played its 1989 classic Doolittle from start to finish–has reignited the debate regarding the Pixies’ live prowess or lack thereof. Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis slagged one of the band’s Chicago dates, dismissing the Pixies as “a cynical corporation cashing in on blatant nostalgia.” The Washington Post‘s David Malitz, meanwhile, described the band’s Monday night set in DC as the musical equivalent of a “slam dunk contest,” a performance that could win over “even a cynic.” So which is it: are the Pixies an incredible or terrible live act? Actually, they’re a little of both.

It makes sense that the band members would want an opportunity to warm up before launching into a song as beloved as Doolittle‘s opening number “Debaser.” Obscure B-sides, however, may not have been the best choice for the job. The sold-out crowd squirmed impatiently during the first few songs, clapping politely for “Dancing the Manta Ray” and “Weird at My School,” before erupting with expectant applause the minute that Kim Deal loosed the iconic bass line that kicks off the album proper.

Tackling Doolittle, the band proved more than competent, reproducing the album’s 15 tracks with stunning accuracy. And yet, it was hard not to notice that there was something missing. While songs like “Here Comes Your Man,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” and “Hey” are undeniable in just about any setting, the band’s stage presence was decidedly less than engaging. All four members stood in place throughout the set, their shoes glued to the stage. Kim Deal did her best to crack wise in between songs but the rest of the band remained silent. There were no surprises to be found embedded in the songs–though to embellish would admittedly have been to undermine the whole exercise. Worst of all were the projections that flashed behind the band. Throughout the night the giant screen cycled through various karaoke machine clichés–swinging nooses, naked bodies, countdowns, lyrics writ large. There was something distinctly unexciting about the whole affair as it often felt like precisely what it was: a reunion cash-in for aging rockers.

That’s not to say, however, that show was completely irredeemable. The two encores, consisting solely of non-Doolittle tracks, were genuinely thrilling. Barreling through some of the best-loved songs from Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa, the band managed to capture some of the energy and passion that has lent it lasting relevance. “Gigantic” was crunchy, catchy, and delightful while “Caribou” was hazy and enchanting. On “Where Is My Mind?,” Deal’s distant coos provided the perfect counterbalance to Frank Black’s off-kilter vocals while “Nimrod’s Son” found Black finally unleashing his banshee scream in full force. Ironically, and in many ways, the encores felt like the night’s real payoff.

Ultimately, whether or not you enjoyed the band’s Monday night set probably had more to do with your expectations than with the band’s performance. If you were looking for note-perfect recreations of the Doolittle songs–replete with shimmering leads, snaking basslines, and jarring dynamics–chances are that you walked away with a smile on your face. If you came looking for something more than a highly skilled band going through the motions, however, you probably left feeling somewhat disappointed. As it turns out, a nostalgia trip with the Pixies is like most great journeys in hindsight: equally satisfying and regrettable.