Review: Pixies' strange chemistry proves explosive at Birmingham show

Black Francis of Pixies
Black Francis of Pixies

Peter Ormerod reviews Pixies at the O2 Academy, Birmingham

It shouldn't work, really: songs crafted in the traditional manner, harnessed to pure noise, played by four people who look like they'd have nothing to do with each other in real life, each of whom seems to be playing his or her own concert, performing material that's nearly 30 years old and deals with incest and the Old Testament, never even acknowledging the existence of the crowd, let alone conversing with them, for 90 minutes solid.


But then Pixies never should have worked, yet do; and this gig did too, and to spectacular effect. Even when the sound was askew, as it frequently was, the merest hint of a song’s outline and contours was enough to elicit scenes of ecstatic abandon in this capacity crowd of all ages and types. It was one of the most remarkable atmospheres I have experienced in my 20 years of gig-going.


Frontman Black Francis is surely rivalled only by Lou Reed in his appreciation of how classical, timeless songwriting can go rather well with all-out assaults on the eardrums. Many of these songs would sound beautiful on a piano, and would withstand varied interpretations. Only here, they're aimed straight at the gut, helped on their way by Francis’s yelps and shrieks. It would be a mistake to call Pixies a rock band, for they're far more geeky and gawky and awkward and odd than that label suggests; the fact they came on stage to the rarely played Beatles curio You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) should be evidence enough of that. For all their visceral force, they are never aggressive, specialising instead in a manically unhinged energy twinned with a curious sweetness and grounded by the touch of a craftsman.


For the most part, their songs are tremendous and short and they just kept coming, a relentless barrage of elegantly brutal beauty leavened with dark wit. The quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamics which influenced waves of bands in their wake are built for crowds like this, affording respite amid the mayhem. Getting an audience to yell “Ride the Tire down River Euphrates” over and over should be a challenge, but Pixies manage it just a few seconds into their set. Lit with a subtle starkness, black-suited behemoth Black Francis never less than captivating, they exude an oddball majesty; any concerns about Paz Lenchantin as a replacement for original bassist Kim Deal are squashed early on, her presence and playing complementing her bandmates admirably. The spiky diffidence of guitarist Joey Santiago and the ageing everyman charm of drummer Dave Lovering – whose warm vocals on a blissfully extended La La Love You are among the highlights of the show – are equally integral to the band’s unlikely chemistry.


The songs with which a generation of alternative music fans grew up - such as Monkey Gone to Heaven, Where Is My Mind?, Here Comes Your Man and Debaser – were greeted uproariously, of course. But some of material from the somewhat mellower new album Head Carrier fitted in well, too, especially Tenement Song and Classic Masher, both of which showcase the band’s melodicism; they are of a piece with Winterlong, the Neil Young song they also play tonight. The only drawback was the sound mix: when you can't hear Black Francis sing, you know something’s wrong.


The night ended with a theatrical flourish: the venue was filled with billows of dense dry ice, rendering the band, and pretty much everything else, invisible. It proved a fitting ambience for a pulsating Into The White. The mist having cleared, the four people who had so entertained us acknowledged the audience’s eruption of appreciation with a tender sweetness.


Do see them if you can. In more ways than one, it’s educational.

* Pixies played:

River Euphrates

There Goes My Gun

Classic Masher

Head On

(The Jesus and Mary Chain cover)

I've Been Tired

Caribou

Gouge Away

Talent

Monkey Gone to Heaven

Oona

U-Mass

Planet of Sound

Where Is My Mind?

Winterlong (Neil Young cover)

All the Saints

Ana

Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf)

La La Love You

Here Comes Your Man

Nimrod's Son

Vamos

Bone Machine

All I Think About Now

Might as Well Be Gone

Tenement Song

Bel Esprit

Crackity Jones

Baal's Back

Tamee

Rock Music

Debaser

Encore:

Into the White