The closest thing St. Louis has gotten to a Pixies show in the 10 years since they re-formed was a 2008 show by Bobby Bare Jr.'s Pixies cover band. I'll take what I can get, even if that means substituting Paz Lenchantin, the second bassist to play with the band since Deal's departure last June.
So let's get it out of the way: Lenchantin is not Deal. But she is a skilled bassist who held the bottom down for lead guitarist Joey Santiago's tightly controlled frenzy. Vocally, she's not quite there. It took about half the show at the Peabody Opera House for her voice to smooth from a warble to a more confident soprano. Not that this stopped the band from opening with the Deal-heavy "Bone Machine," almost like they were flaunting her absence.
After a visually stunning and musically pleasant set by Cults, Pixies buzzsawed through a 28-song set low on spoken words and high on tight energy.
This wasn't the Black Francis of 1993, who was too exhausted after shows to attend after parties. He's aged into a Bikram yoga-loving powerhouse, one of the least likely survivors of the late '80s noise-rock scene. Vocally sweet on "Wave of Mutilation," he transitioned into the shrieks and screams on "River Euphrates' that have remained strong and cathartic.
Catharsis is what made Pixies special in the first place. Their original take on the quiet-loud arrangement was more complex than their grunge worshippers. They didn't shy away from it with the frantic "Crackity Jones," moving its frenzy into the opening of "Isla De Encanta" as if the two songs have been one all along. Full of noise and speed with eruptions of silence followed by a straight-up howl, it's the sonic equivalent of near-unbearable intensity with just enough break to catch your breath. It's visceral and physical, a punch to the carotid artery followed by a hit of painkillers that barely take effect before the next neck punch lands.
Santigo's extended chiming surf punk solo during "Head On," made it clear that maybe we've spent so much time focusing on the battles between Deal and Black that we've missed the real heart of the band. While the lyrics and arrangements are important to Pixies' surface, would any of it have held together or been so gut-wrenching without Santiago forging the path of the songs? From the sheet metal rattle he produced on new song "Magdalena" to the deep rumble to sparkling brilliance on classic "Cactus," Santiago's guitar gave Pixies their flavor, their brightness, and their darkness. For "Gouge Away" he created an industrial droning roar under Black's white-bright rhythm guitar, like sunshine filtered through dirty old factory windows.
"Bagboy," released last June as the first new song from the band in nine years, differs only because of the electronic sample used to open and close the song. Otherwise, their new material from a pair of EPs released last year blended well into the lineup of classics. "Blue-Eyed Hexe" and "Snakes" retained the core sound of the older songs, the latter featuring Black on acoustic guitar over Santiago's tightly controlled feedback that threatened to veer into chaos with a poppy chorus floating above it.
"Hey" and "U-Mass" merited audience sing-alongs, although even Black seemed to shy away from the profanity a bit. Both still simmer with tight, controlled punk rage that bottle rockets when wound too tight.
Black stuck with the acoustic guitar for the last part of the show, keeping the balance with Santiago's noise and fury. Unreleased song "Silver Snail" paired with "Motorway to Rosewell" for a new story that felt like a bad trip of both the road and head varieties through hot desert. They lightened it with favorites "Here Comes Your Man" and "La La Love You," a brave move without deal, but Lenchantin had warmed up by this point to counter drummer David Lovering's matinee-idol vocals.
Santiago brought the show's highlight with his pedalboard masterpiece, "Vamos (Surfer Rosa)." Black stepped back to let the guitarist go full tilt into a fret-sliding feedback mania. With his guitar unplugged, he banged the plug end against his palm, beating out a rhythm in feedback before rapidly plugging and unplugging the cord to make sliding pops of noise. Magnificent and mesmerizing, it didn't matter who else was on stage with him anymore.
After the feedback storm, they concluded their set with a floaty, coasting ease-down in "In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song), concluding with "Where is My Mind." Still wordless, they lingered to take their curtain call, smiling and seeming, dare I say, happy.
The band returned with a two-song encore with "Debaser," then bringing up the house light for "Planet of Sound." Audience gossip questioned if that was a move to get them off stage even though it was plenty of time before curfew. No, this has been the method for ending the show through this leg of the tour. In the brightness with the noise, and red and white lights reflecting off 40 panels behind the band, Black closed the night with a sensory overload of a story, dropping us into an unfamiliar, daunting new planet where nostalgia and perhaps old grudges doesn't exist.
Wave of Mutilation
Isla De Encanta
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Motorway to Roswell
Here Comes Your Man
La La Love You
Vamos (Surfer Rosa)
Greens and Blues
In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)
Where Is My Mind
Planet of Sound