For a band like Pixies, legacy is king. Journeying 34 years through the tumultuous and turbulent music business war field, the Boston alternative rock quartet have remained a formidable constant within today’s cultural landscape and have crossed (and dare say influenced) multiple generations of music fans. In a time when we have mumble rap and auto-tuned and ultra-gaudiness conquering the charts, at least we have that strong refuge within the sounds of Pixies and their contemporaries to fall back to, or to strangle the soundwaves coming from a digital radio or punter’s headphones nearby. I’m sure Mr Black is reading this and possibly feeling very old, but I imagine he would be self-effacing in light of such incredible achievements over the years. From my own journalistic experience, it can also be a matter of having walked every walk and reflecting on said walks becomes more automatic and reserved as life goes on – yet another reprisal of that ‘old chestnut’ as colloquially expressed. Regardless, this story is backed up by action, experience, emotion, and resilience. To compress their legacy to a few lines – forming in 1986, Pixies have produced 7 studio albums, a number of EPs including their debut offering ‘Come On Pilgrim’ (1987) and a plethora of singles selling into the millions. This is not counting Black’s solo side ventures and (now departed bassist) Kim Deal’s time in The Breeders to highlight some of the extraneous creative works undertaken by members in their ranks.
Here we are in 2019 with the band now supporting their 7th album, Beneath the Eyrie, release earlier this month on BMG/Infectious and featuring the upbeat and harmonic ‘Catfish Kate’ and ‘On Graveyard Hill’.
2019 also holds significance as the 30th anniversary of the Pixies masterpiece ‘Doolittle’. Recorded in ’88 by Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Echo and the Bunnymen, Jimmy Eat World, several Pixies albums thereafter) following the gritty and overdriven Albini-produced ‘Surfer Rosa’ released in March 1988 – the album remains the go-to Pixies release for all listeners. The album in its 15 tracks embraced a variety of sounds, extending the Pixies palette into new territories and sonic dimensions, and has an incredibly bright, refined production and master job in comparison to its predecessors. Songs such as the manic ‘Debaser’, the more sombre ‘Wave of Mutilation’, the jittery and swinging ‘Mr Grieves’ as well as hit singles ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ and ‘Here Comes Your Man’, in addition to every other song on this record, formed an incredibly solid and impactful work of art. A good thing about the large 33 song set on the current run of shows is that it caters to those albums and shows that they know what their fans want. The new stuff might be new and reflect where the band are now as artists, but some songs have had 30+ years of testing and can’t be ignored.
Interestingly you still have some people asking ‘who are Pixies?’ It happened to me recently. When you ramble off a few songs and a couple of badly sung lines and melodies, they are often astonished when they know the songs. You get the hand gestures and waves to signify ‘yes, I know that!’ It was Nick Cave I believe who wrote something around the lines of once a song is let out in the wild, it’s no longer their song, but what people make and associate it with. Pixies have coloured in much of the contemporary canvas, and songs like ‘Where Is My Mind?’ are now commonplace and still exciting to the ear.
However, there were 2000 people in Belfast who knew exactly who they were, packed into the Ulster Hall liked Sainsbury’s sardines in tomato sauce, sufficiently liquored (never seen a bar so busy) and ready to have a good time. The band invited London-based 4 piece The Big Moon whose sound was very reminiscent of Adore-era Smashing Pumpkins, Sufjan Stevens, Belle and Sebastian, and a sound akin to their modern contemporaries such Black Honey and Dream Wife. With their gloomy, reverb-laden and driven pop flair and indie swing, the band were perfect for the cavernous Ulster Hall and very suitable for the Pixies. This was especially the case where their multi-vocal harmonies were projected sounding mountainous within the venue. As not commonly seen these days, The Big Moon was witnessed by a full house.
Now, and you’re probably reading this review and thinking ‘wow, this guy must really like Pixies’. I do, I’m very fond of their works, and I won’t deny that as I have hopefully clearly articulated above. But, I will also make it clear that this was the first time I’ve seen them live (Cheers, Darren!). What you are about to read is a rather mixed bag of feelings, and probably contradictory to my gushing about said songs and the band. The band came on stage at 9 pm sharp to dim backlighting and fogs of dry ice. For the photographers up close, this was probably a nightmare, to the crowd, the projection of large striking silhouettes stretched to the ceiling of the venue looked incredible. It was Gary Numan’s light tech, Luke, who gave me fantastic advice “shoot the show, not the band”. This exemplified this principle impeccably. The band had already kicked into the gritty western-esque surfer kick ‘Cecilia Ann’ before progressing into ‘Brick is Red’ and ‘Caribou’ with its elongated ooohs and ahhs juxtaposed against Black’s strangled tones.
The 33-song set featured the entire new album, which ‘Los Surfers Muertos’ and ‘Catfish Kate’ were the standout tracks in the live arena. Many choice cuts from their back catalogue were featured. For myself, tracks such as the ever-aggressive ‘Velouria’, ‘Bone Machine’, ‘Break My Body’, ‘Gouge Away’, and their summoning of the Stooges through ‘St Nazaire’ caught my attention greatly, accentuated the band’s energy and sound appropriately, and got the head-bopping along with their legions of hypnotised chickens. Moreover, the key singles/staples such as ‘Where is My Mind?’; ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ and ‘Here Comes Your Man’ replenished tired concert-goers on the mid-week hump and kept them lively enough for a proper singalong. However, I left that show with the overwhelming feeling that the band just went through the motions. I’m still trying to put my finger on it. They were almost robotic, heavily automated, in their approach to their live show (computer says: ‘play song, stop, silence, tune, play song’ for nearly every track on the list) with no crowd interaction at all. I will give the band the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that we are all human, we have our bad days, maybe they just weren’t feeling it themselves. However, I will affirm that is no comment on the quality of their performance and their tightness – as mentioned, it was a lengthy set and the band kept it going for almost 2 hours, and there were no mistakes or dips.
Special mention to the lighting guy that night, I really dug it, despite being a photographer! The other photographers… Not so much…
Review: Steven J Donnelly
Photography: Kerri Clarke
Exposing Shadows Photography