The Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
February 2, 2014
I have a slightly embarrassing admission regarding my introduction to the Pixies.
There was a time in my life when I was buying music at an unsustainable rate. Not monetarily unsustainable, mind you, since the mid-2000s saw collectors purging CDs en masse in favor of digital music, which allowed me to rake in stacks of essential CDs at about $5 a pop. The unsustainability stemmed from the volume and mild discretion with which I acquired it, snagging up records by any band of whose reputation I was aware, whether or not I had an inkling as to their sound. My desire to familiarize myself with as much good music as possible has always been a driver, and at the time I dreaded not being able to participate in informed discussions with peers whose horizons were broader than my own. By now I've reached a point where my tastes meander where they will, but back then, it was more about filling in the many gaps in my repertoire.
The year was 2005 and I was flipping through the used section at 52.5 Records or Millennium Music or Manifest Records (only the latter of which has lasted) and came across The Pixies' Bossanova. The Pixies were the perfect example of a band I knew I should know, but didn't. It feels bizarre that less than a decade ago I was so unfamiliar with such an important band, but that's where I was.
This was pre-smartphone, so I was unable to execute a quick background check. But I couldn't shake the feeling that this record was part of some experimental synchronized 4-disc release I'd read about. If that sounds a lot like the Flaming Lips' Zaireka that's because it's exactly what I was thinking of. Yes, I was underschooled to the point that I was confusing the Pixies with the Flaming Lips (a band I would fully embrace a few months later.) But I bought the record anyway, and on the drive home slid it into my console CD player. The first song is surf rock instrumental "Cecilia Ann". Hm, no lyrics. Guess I was right! I ejected and cased the CD, and didn't listen to it again until I realized my mistake some months later. Bossonova is now my favorite Pixies record. I always laugh to myself when I think about that bungle, but also feel a bit nostalgic for that exciting time when I could discover an essential act seemingly each week.
I've never been quite as infatuated with the Pixies as I've been with a lot of bands, but that isn't to say I'm not a card-carrying fan. I mentioned my affinity for Bossanova, and I think Dolittle is deserved of all the praise it's received in recent years. The only of the three other Pixies records I own is Surfer Rosa, which I like but have a hit-or-miss familiarity. (By the way, it it just me or has "Where Is My Mind?" become ubiquitous in the past few years?) This may explain why I was somewhat on the fence about attending The Pixies stop in Nashville that fell during a recent visit. There were a few factors dissuading me: it was Super Bowl Sunday, I'd be visiting the same venue two days later for a Neutral Milk Hotel show, and tickets were a staggering $70. But my hosts were attending and as a Redskins fan, the Super Bowl is basically an abstract concept, so I took the plunge. As it happened, my seat—purchased three months after my pals—was about ten feet from theirs. I was able to sidle over and watch the show with them. Meant to be, I suppose!
This was my second trip to the Ryman, bookending a seven and a half year gap. My first experience was a Ryan Adams and the Cardinals show in 2006. The place looked no different from how I left it, which is unsurprising for such an historical venue. Having truly delved into old school country in the past few years, it was easier to appreciate the stylized portraits of Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb and other country legends who used to perform at the Ryman when it housed the Grand Ol' Opry. The auditorium itself is an old church, beautiful and rustic, sporting pews instead of theater seats. The balcony reaches over much of the floor seating, and the locals tell me it's almost preferable to sit upon high. As a bit of a seat snob, this assuaged my concern that my back row balcony seats would yield an underwhelming experience. So while I'd still have preferred a near-stage floor seat, I certainly felt satisfied with my view.
The opener was Cults, one of those latter-aughts New York City indie pop bands that all kind of run together in my mind. But lead vocalist Madeline Follin's voice, drenched in reverb as it was, is powerful enough to distinguish her from the doe-eyed indie girl archetype. To paraphrase a Tom Waits line, her voice sounds like electric sugar, but a dash of sultriness fortifies her delivery. Guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Brian Oblivion—the other half of the original duo that's now expanded to a five-piece—handled most of the banter, offering jokey mid-song updates on the Super Bowl ("I think we can call this one for Seattle") and making sure to mention how floored they were to be opening for the Pixies at the Ryman just three years after breaking out. Well, sure.
Then it was time for the Pixies. I always get a rush the first time I see an iconic figure in person, and Frank Black's entrance made for no exception. Frank took the stage with longtime bandmates drummer David Lovering and guitarist Joey Santiago, and new bandmate bassist/vocalist Paz Lenchantin. Alas, Kim Deal's been an ex-Pixie for a year now, but I thought Lenchantin (Deal's second replacement) did a phenomenal job in her stead. A talented multi-instrumentalist and veteran of numerous prominent rock acts, Lenchantin captured Deal's vocal style so perfectly that casual fans unfamiliar with the band's personnel may not have known the difference.
My question: how the hell can Frank Black still sing like that? How do his vocal chords not resemble pumpkin innards (seeds and all) with all the screaming he's done for the past 25 years? However he's maintained his chops, the Nashville crowd appreciated his efforts that Sunday night. After all, would it really have been "Crackity Jones" if Black wasn't delivering the titular lyrics in that ragged shriek?
Looking back at the setlist, I'm a little surprised to see that they played 33 songs, which speaks to the fact that I'm not as comfortable with the Pixies' full catalog as I thought I was. Still, a stretch of seven Dolittle songs was a real treat, and found therein was song of the night "La La Love You". It's not the one I'd have expected to stand out, but it's such a charming and strange tune that it stood out from all the ragers in a real refreshing way. And Lovering's extended, a cappella refrain of "All I'm askin', pretty baby / La-la-love you, don't mean maybe" got one of the night's best crowd responses. But I won't sleep on "Velouria", my personal favorite Pixies song that was finally played as the second of a three-song encore.
Speaking to the level of band/fan interaction: it was minimal. Frank Black's performance felt anything but perfunctory, but I'm struggling to remember if he spoke even one word on mic (outside of a brief, jocular back-and-forth with the rest of the band after a mid-song hiccup—I believe he said something like, "We can just pick up from there right? One, two, three...") Black finally acknowledged the audience at the end of the first set, ambling around the stage sporting a childlike grin, waving at fans like a proud grade schooler acknowledging his family at a recital. I wasn't expecting an abundance of banter, but it's never not a little surprising when an artist doesn't feel compelled to gab with the audience a bit.
After the show, we returned home and watched the Super Bowl on DVR, if mostly for the commercials. Real talk: I thought Bruno Mars' halftime performance was outstanding. After all, the Super Bowl is an event tailor made for a bouffanted pop crooner. But I digress!
Admittedly, I went into this show feeling more than a bit like I was visiting some famous landmark. But the Pixies are just so much better than that and with no perceived flaws in the facade, it was easy to fall under the spell of the energized charisma on which the band built its reputation. Purists may find it difficult to call these Pixies "The Pixies" without Kim Deal, which I understand, but I'd like to think I won't feel compelled to provide that disclaimer when recalling this show. I won't remember it for who wasn't there, but rather for the brilliant songs, the legendary venue, and the fact that I had a far, far better night than the Broncos.
Wave of Mutilation
Head On (The Jesus and Mary Chain cover)
Isla de Encanta
In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)
I've Been Tired
Brick Is Red
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Here Comes Your Man
La La Love You
Motorway to Roswell
Blue Eyed Hexe
Greens and Blues
Where Is My Mind?
Planet of Sound