Pixies, Alexandra Palace, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Debasing themselves
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The Independent Culture

"Outside there's a box car waiting/ outside the family stew/ out by the fire breathing/ outside we wait 'til face turns blue." These words of agreeable drivel, from arguably the Pixies' most accessible song, "Here Comes Your Man", swirled around my head all night, in my sleep. So, I must have had a decent time. I must have soaked up and wallowed in the unadulterated nostalgia. I must have bowed down before this celebrated Boston quartet - the singer Francis Black (born Charles Thompson), the bassist Kim Deal, the guitarist Joey Santiago and the drummer David Lovering. Except it didn't quite work out that way.

The gushing wave of critical enthusiasm is gradually dying down since this apparently unreformable band (relations between Black and Deal turned notoriously sour, and in the end Black was rumoured to have informed the band by fax that they were splitting up) reformed and played the Brixton Academy to hysterically favourable reviews last year. A year on from the massive hype, they are still around, however, still churning out the same material, in pretty much the same order. Still cashing in (and why not?) on their back-catalogue of classics from their most heady period, 1987 and 1993.

Tonight they're at Ally Pally. The palace is an unusual venue for a rock band (it feels like you're in an aircraft hangar), and the acoustics are rather unforgiving. The Pixies shuffled on stage, not to an explosion of screams, but to an appreciative wail or two. The crowd, mostly men in their early to mid-thirties, seemed quietly confident, smug even. Complacent? They knew exactly what they were going to receive tonight. No nasty surprises here. And, of course, there weren't.

The rock veterans began with their grisly ode to molestation, "Bone Machine", which is full of their trademark demented lyrics - "Our love is rice and beans and horses' lard". Then rat-a-tat-tat-style, the Pixies cascaded through their material at a scorching pace. They don't take breaks, apart from 12-year ones, of course (boom boom). We are then bombarded by some less well-known tracks, "Dead", "Alec Eiffel" and "Crackity Jones", delivered in blistering succession.

It quickly became clear, however, that neither Black, who, from a distance, bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Chiklis's demented cop on The Shield, nor the iconic Deal (who is woefully underused tonight - particularly her delicious vocals) was going to engage with the audience. No banter, no frippery, no "hello, the People's Palace, we're back and here's something new for y'all". Indeed, there was little new material; mainly the golden oldies, including the wonderfully deranged "Nimrod's Son" (a song memorably parodied by Chris Morris in "Motherbanger". It got one of the best audience responses of the evening).

The four-piece marched relentlessly on through their "standards" - "In Heaven", "Vamos", "Holiday" and the superb "Where Is My Mind?". It was all head-spinningly impressive in its drive and the Pixies' wall (or wail) of sound is still awesomely furious. Except the spark, the thing that made them once peerless and somewhat magical (and, funnily enough, Lovering is now an accomplished stage magician), is fading. The more they perform, the more their mysterious appeal and Black's increasingly croaky voice fades to a gasp. Like The Clash and Hüsker Dü, the Pixies weren't really meant to be brought back from the dead. Some of their fans, maybe just this one, were secretly happy they remained "sleeping". No point flogging a dead pixie. Never a good thing.

As the revival night neared its conclusion, things turned refreshingly silly. There was a mini-stage invasion (well, one person tried to clamber on) during the anthemic "Debaser", and Lovering playfully lobbed Santiago a drumstick, which he used to get noise from his guitar. Ultimately, however, it was with mild relief that they signed off with "Gigantic". There was no need to go through the motions any more.

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