The iTunes festival has been gracing the magnificent setting of the Camden Roundhouse (in my opinion the only London venue that rivals it is Brixton Academy) for almost three weeks now. The month-long string of ballot-deployed gigs has brought to North London acts as diverse as Lady Gaga and Arctic Monkeys, Elton John and Kendrick Lamar. Last night was the turn of one of alt-rock’s pioneers in the form of tubby legend Frank Black and his band the Pixies.
Pixies started out in the late 80’s, and can justifiably claim to be the forefathers of most modern guitar music. Indeed Kurt Cobain famously once said that he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies” when he stumbled upon Smells Like Teen Spirit. Their trademark sound was almost jokingly summarised in the name of a 2006 documentary about them, called LoudQUIETloud. They practically invented the blueprint for alt-rock’s trademark of soft verses which crescendo into monstrous choruses. They are also all brisk affairs, with only a handful of their songs exceeding the three minute mark (and therefore falling in line with my assertion that most of the best songs are either under three or over five minutes in length).
Taking to the stage with an acoustic guitar strapped to his sizeable belly, and flanked with new bassist/vocalist Kim Shattuck (founder member Kim Deal left earlier this year), Frank Black led the band into an uncharacteristically relaxed yet anthemic rendition of Wave of Mutilation. Two more acoustic tracks followed before the crowd-pleasing Where Is My Mind? and Here Comes Your Man signaled the end of the quiet intro. Black’s six-string was exchanged for its electric counterpart and it was time for business.
One of the joys of going to see Pixies in concert is the sheer number of songs they get through. With little in the way of stage banter and a back catalogue of tracks so brief that they could hold a five-year-old’s attention, the band were able to rattle through nigh-on thirty songs in their set. Velouria and Bone Machine (what on earth is that song about?) were followed by a good ten songs that I don’t think I’d ever heard before. However, unlike with other bands, the manic ADHD brevity of Pixies’ songwriting meant that the whole set never lost momentum, instead resembling some sort of mad, beat-the-intro treat for fans who “knew their shit” a little more than myself.
Towards the end, the band treated the predictably middle-aged crowd to their first new track in ten years (Bagboy) as well as a couple of old favourites in the form of the very Nirvana-esque Gouge Away and one of my personal highlights, Caribou.
The band then came back for a brief encore consisting of Planet of Sound, Monkey Gone To Heaven and a raucous rendition of Vamos (one of their longer songs, weighing in at a positively indulgent 4:19) before disappearing quickly and suddenly into the night. I don’t think the Pixies know any other way of doing things.
Sure there were minor disappointments, mainly the lack of Debaser and Tame (Ed and I reckoned that this was probably down to 48-year-old Frank no longer being able to scream as well as he used to…), but the Pixies remain a formidable live act and, given their significance in the pantheon of rock greatness, one that should be witnessed at least once in your life. After all, for a hefty chunk of modern bands, this is where it all began…
By Harry Harland
Pixies play Electric Brixton on 27th Sept, before playing a five-date UK tour in November. Full audio of the Roundhouse gig is available in the below clip: