REVIEW: Pixies fire on all cylinders, dig deep into songbook at August Hall


Pixies perform at The August Hall in San Francisco on Dec. 5, 2019. Photos: Sean Liming.

SAN FRANCISCO — With a surprising burst of fiery energy, indie rock giants the Pixies filled August Hall on Thursday. The capacity crowd of mainly millennials cheered the band and sang along to classic choruses while the band sounded tight and together, plowing ahead from song to song with no breaks.

The Pixies ripped through a generous 37-song set that explored the spectrum from mellow surf to unhinged punk depravity. The set played like a string of pop anthems, including a healthy mix of songs from their latest album, Beneath The Eyrie. Guitarist and lead vocalist Charles Thompson, who until recently performed as Frank Black, didn’t address the audience even once, and only acknowledged fans once—with a cursory wave after the last song, a cogent rendering of “Bone Machine.” The music spoke for itself.

Pixies, Black Francis

Pixies perform at August Hall in San Francisco on Dec. 5, 2019.

Despite repeated hassles with the sound onstage, the Pixies were locked in musically. On the older songs, the band struck a balance between precise loyalty to the recorded versions and live improvisation. “Brick Is Red” was played straight, with solos faithfully recreated, while weirdo-noir “Cactus” had a swaggering tempo slowdown. The three remaining original members, now in their mid-50s, sizzled and seared through their back catalog of raucous art punk gems. Relative newcomer Paz Lenchantin’s bass and silky vocals blended seamlessly with the arrangements and the Pixies’ signature sound. The steadfast David Lovering pounded away on big-sounding drums, trading cues with Lenchantin and lead guitarist Joey Santiago.

Although Santiago kept a low profile at the right side of there stage, his legendarily wicked tone punctuated each song. Looking a little like a beat poet, the guitarist generated the little hooks and strangulated leads that have always given the Pixies their musical edge. On “Vamos,” he elicited a gloriously awful noise solo from his gold Les Paul and wah-wah pedal.

Thompson, however, drove the operation from beginning to end. The tireless songwriter pummeled the strings of his acoustic guitar and emitted tuneful vocals and shredding screams from start to finish. Happily, the set spanned the band’s deep catalog, including surprises like “Ed Is Dead” and “Blown Away.” Looking somewhat weathered, the impish bandleader communicated subtly with his bandmates onstage. Like a madman compelled, Thompson reconstructed dozens of iconic Pixies songs, hinting at the depth of their discography.

Pixies, Kim Deal

Pixies perform at August Hall in San Francisco on Dec. 5, 2019.

Lenchantin breathed new life into the group. The understated hard rock veteran wore a plaid flannel almost identical to Thompson’s and performed with full engagement of the material. She coordinated harmonized folk-dup vocals. Her dry, flat-bottomed bass sound laid a sturdy foundation around Lovering’s slightly off-kilter rhythmic style. With the soft red curtains behind her and a red rose adorning her bass guitar, Lenchantin’s velvety voice carried far. Despite her efforts to blend in, she stood out with a winning smile, graciously stabilizing the testosterone onstage.

Lenchantin contributed significantly to the writing of Pixies’ newer material, serving as Thompson’s key collaborator. The disharmonized musical intro to “Los Surfers Muertos” sounded good in its discord, as each instrument achieved its own clarity against the others. Lenchantin delivered a dark heartfelt lead vocal, giving Thompson’s voice a rare reprieve. Many of the newer songs sounded better in the live context. The tightly constructed anti-pop tune “This Is My Fate” gained personality from Thompson’s conviction, and hidden nuance emerged in Lovering’s odd-time surprises. “Death Horizon” and “Ready For Love” glowed with pop resonance, while Santiago’s heavily overdriven leads lanced “Graveyard Hill” with electric energy.

Thompson initiated a curious pacing. Besides starting each song as the final notes of the previous one rang out, the band grouped songs with others that were tonally similar. The slow version of “Wave Of Mutilation” was followed by the equally subdued “Ana.” Soon after, proceedings were ramped up with a series of hard-edged numbers, including “Gouge Away” and “Crackity Jones.” The surfy “St. Nazaire” was paired with Surftones cover “Cecilia Ann.”

Kristin Hersh

Kristin Hersh performs at August Hall in San Francisco on Dec. 5, 2019.

Without ever losing momentum, the Pixies blazed down the home stretch with a half-dozen well-received songs from their first two albums. The crowd echoed most of the lyrics to “Debaser” and “Monkey Gone To Heaven.” After what must have been an exhausting show for the group, Pixies opted to forgo an encore. Fans stomped and whistled for more well after the house lights came up.

Punk-influenced singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh opened the show. An alumnus of Throwing Muses and 50FootWave, the accomplished Hersh performed a 30-minute set of scuzzy garage rock. With touchingly shy charisma, she pursued a gritty, rude guitar tone from her sea-green semi-hollow body LTD. A roiling, big-boned rhythm section cemented her rock credentials and buoyed her lo-fi solos and unique chord positions.

Though her vocals were hard to hear at times, it was unclear if this was due to her delivery or the house mix. Like Thompson, she communicated with music and the occasional gesture rather than stage banter. A supportive audience received Hersh warmly.

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