It’s hard to believe, but alt rock titans The Pixies have been reunited now for more than a decade. That’s almost as long as they were broken up, and yet somehow, it still feels like they’ve just gotten back together. That’s a hell of a victory lap, and one of the few times that a “reunion” actually carried the gravitas it was reported to have. That means that most of this last decade featured them playing entirely the material that made them famous. Now, following the departure of original member Kim Deal (temporarily replaced by The Muffs’ Kim Shattuck and subsequently re-staffed by Paz Lenchantin) the band has released a couple of new EPs and their first new album since Trompe le Monde in 1991. Given their reputation and catalog, it’s also surprising to learn that this night in September was the first time ever the band has played the venerable Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Yup, this was the final show of the 2014 season at the Bowl (and the final of this year’s KCRW World Music Festival to boot) and it was one to remember.
First up on the evening was indie pop starlet Cat Power. The artist (also known by her name Chan Marshall) is a complicated one to explain. While critically acclaimed and somewhat adored by a legion of devoted fans, her career has been dogged by false starts, middling performances, substance abuse and health problems. The performances mxdwn has caught of hers in the past can only be described as looking powerfully uncomfortable for the artist, as if she felt hamstrung by stage fright. Tonight’s show was just a little better than that. Marshall appeared to be in good spirits, but performed in a lackadaisical, unfocused way, slurring certain lines and making frequent, rambling incomprehensible in-between song commentary. Recent album Sun tracks “Cherokee” and “Manhattan” along with “Metal Heart” prompted joyous cheers from the crowd, but it’s hard not to have been a bit confused by the total product of this set. At one point Marshall quipped, “This song is important… or whatever.” Later she commented, “This song is for everyone who is having a shitty day…. or having a shitty court battle. Because who doesn’t love a shitty court battle?” Huh? All due respect to Marshall and her extensive catalog, but watching this is only disappointing imagining how huge her career might have been if she could have stayed on point over the last decade.
Gogol Bordello followed with a freight-train-like rollicking power putting them squarely on the completely opposite side as Cat Power. While CP was a subdued and jangling experience, Gogol Bordello was a brimming explosion of manic energy. If you have not seen this band live yet, do yourself a favor and get to one of their shows. You will not be disappointed. This is a multi-cultural (members hail from everywhere including Ukraine, China, Ecuador and Belarus) and multi-lingual group embracing a wide variety of genres, styles and flavors of folk music, all wrapped up in a self-applied moniker of Gypsy punk. This is a Sly and the Family Stone for the new generation. An artful, impassioned and overwhelmingly joyous experience, Gogol Bordello knocks you off your feet demanding your participation in their infectious celebratory optimism. Opening with “Ultimate” and “Not a Crime” one of the group’s sole US-born members Michael Ward’s guitar was amped up to the top of the mix, bringing an almost deceptive hard rock feel to intro the set.
Once they arrived at “Wonderlust King” the group’s female singer Elizabeth Sun joined main singer Eugene Hutz and percussionist/MC Pedro Erazo-Segovia for the onslaught of sound. Jumping phrases and musical motifs as elegantly as a painter wields a palette of colors, the band mutated from accordion flutters to acoustic power chord charges and back again to folksy violin stabs. As the set progressed, the output became increasingly more impressive. “My Companjera” was a full-throttle summons with Hutz howling, “Where are you now my companjera?” expressing a longing for a lost presence beyond a mere romantic infatuation. “Last One Goes the Hope” and “Trans-Continental Hustle” upped the ante even further combining together as one epic megajam and featuring an elongated for each musician to show off their skill. The group ended off with the one-two punch of their pro-immigration epic number “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)” and the singalong fury of “Start Wearing Purple.” Though not the most natural fit to open for a band like The Pixies, Gogol Bordello received a much-deserved roar of applause from the sold-out crowd on hand.
Lastly, The Pixies played a set crammed with best and most inventive tracks from their storied career. True to form, the band said little to the crowd. Drummer David Lovering commented before “Isla de Encanta” how this show was on the exact day that their first album Come on Pilgrim had come out 27 years earlier. Otherwise, it was all killer, no filler from the band form in Boston at the height of the real alternative music underground in the 80’s. They started with “Bone Machine” from Surfer Rosa, lead singer Black Francis backed up by Lenchantin for the song’s quirky chorus, “Your bone’s got a little machine.” “Wave of Mutilation” and “U-Mass” followed, each prompting enthusiastic cheers of appreciation from the crowd. “Hey” began with Francis happily singing “Hey / been trying to meet you / hey / been a devil between us.” This one demonstrated perfectly one side of the band’s personality, the more fun and offbeat sense of timing and lyrical wordplay.
“Crackity Jones” and “Debaser” (which both came later in the set) are the other side, a more direct and aggressive form of heavy alt rock. Several songs from the band’s recent album Indie Cindy featured in the set as well. Among them were “Bagboy,” the album’s title track, “Magdalena 318” and “Greens and Blues.” “Bagboy” especially feels cut from the same swathe as their Surfer Rosa material. The most impressive of these new tunes was “Greens and Blues” which came near the end of the set proper. Otherwise, the crowd grew more enraptured as the set progressed. Each progressive song found more and more audience members dancing happily in the aisles or in front of their seats. “Nimrod’s Son” led into the bouncy fun of “Here Comes Your Man” which led into the David Lovering ditty “La La Love You.” The set concluded on a slew of fan favorites. “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Debaser,” “Tame” and “Vamos” all came in succession, the latter of which featuring an extended feedback and pickup switch solo from guitarist Joey Santiago. And from there, the set proper ended the only way it could, with their wholly unique anthem, “Where is My Mind?”
The band played loose throughout the show, allowing each angular riff and jubilant bassline to have room to breathe rather than trying to force each track to sound as much like the recorded version as possible. The crowd was elated by the time “Where is My Mind?” concluded, and miraculously even managed a short encore by of way Trompe le Monde‘s “Planet of Sound.” It was an amazing night for alternative music, and a well-earned triumphant moment for a band that won fan’s hearts and minds through sheer quality and ingenuity. Music as a whole is a better place with The Pixies alive and well.