The Pixies, Hammerstein Ballroom
When the Pixies where happening in the late 80s I enjoyed what I heard but didn't get deeply into them. I was foolishly purist--the MTV presence and pop riffs kept me at arms length. The last few years I've been listening to the CDs and asking myself, "What the hell was wrong with me that I didn't like this more at the time?"
We got to the Hammerstein early knowing the show would fill up fast. It did. The crowd was much younger than I would have expected -- mostly mid-twenties, through there were a few people my age. Very excited people. Heavy competition for floor real estate. We stood down front, Kim Deal side.
Opening were Le Tigre -- a band I had read about but never seen: three young women doing peppy retro-disco/punk with feminist/queer framing. The music was almost all laptop tracks. One guitar got traded around occasionally, and the odd keyboard doodle was thrown in here and there, but this was all about singing over the hard drive. They did cute orchestrated disco party moves and wore sparkly outfits -- queer political performance art rock with karaoke party as model?
I have to admit I was struggling to access the music, which seemed shockingly sleepy. Maybe this works better on CD? It was hard to discern much content apart from the framing. "All feminists report to the front desk" is as far as they could take the material? The tone was trying to be fun and serious at the same time(Margaret Cho influence?), but it too often veered into a preachy/awkward/immature zone.
The drum machine and synthbass sounded brittle and one-dimensional, like a storefront façade for a western done in high-contrast black and white halftone. The song writing was all bare minimum retro-formalism, though two or three of the tunes toward the end of the set had better dynamics and actually developed some forward momentum and contrast. Maybe I don’t really get this music, but it's still good to see younger musicians trying to keep some kind of politics upfront without loosing a fun vibe entirely. It could also be there is a generation gap between me and Le Tigre?
I did notice, in the overall performance, something that resonated though -- the unhealed, rejected teenager in me that still needs to bond with others who also don’t fit in to their larger social world for some reason, though my identification to this as a straight male happens on a different scale.
The Pixies came on after the traditional unnecessary rock-concert-torture-waiting-period, which is designed, I suppose, to frame the music with a giant block of tedium and thereby have the featured act come as a kind of relief. From the first few seconds of the opener -- Wave of Mutilation, it was obvious the show was going to be incontrovertibly awesome.
The formula for the songs worked over and over with variations: great verse vocal melodies with odd and inventive lyrics, solid but aggressive pop groove with simple propulsive drumming, bringing the energy up three or four notches on the chorus with the beautifully vivid Frank Black scream (I kept thinking: Glenn Danzig!) and Kim Deal harmonizing. Piercing single-line guitar riffs repeating the vocal melody. Every element of the song added a strong element.
The mix, which started a little muddy, got progressively worse, eventually degenerating into a pulpy, over-processed blob that actually obfuscated the last few songs, including Debaser.
They broke the set in half with a twenty minute guitar feedback solo with some antics involving a drumstick and a bottle of beer while the rest of the band stepped to the side. It was almost like a magic routine -- the drummer's influence at work perhaps, since he has been a professional magician.
There is often a trace of something embarrassing about watching a rock stars, but this was entirely lacking with The Pixies. No chat or commentary between songs. Hardly any stage movement from anyone. The Doolittle-heavy set didn't slow up for a second. They mostly went straight from one song to the next. It actually got faster and more aggressive as the evening went on: One great song after another for an hour and a half.
The band was visibly happy at how much people loved the music, how happy they were to be there. The Pixies play a music that is a fusion of exuberance and unhappiness, maybe trying to purge the unhappiness, but also using it as depth, holding the unhappiness up the light of exuberance to see what it is.