Pixies Play Massey Hall

pixies

Three curious things about the Pixies concert Tuesday night: first, their decision to play their debut album Doolittle from beginning to end. Second, they began the concert by playing B sides and outtakes. Third, of course, is the date. It’s 2011, the album was released 22 years ago, and the Pixies have long since disbanded. What’s going on?

To put it into perspective – and those overly sensitive to the passage of time and its ravages may want to cover your ears at this point – performing this 1989 album in 2011, is like The Beatles re-grouping to perform their 1967 album St. Pepper’s in 1989. The same amount of time has passed between the release of Sgt. Pepper’s and Doolittle, as since Doolittle was released to today.

So in answer to the question ‘What’s going on?’, our first conclusion might very well be that the lucrative nostalgia market is not a phenomenon exclusive to Baby Boomers. It appears to be alive and well among Gen X’ers too, with some concert goers shelling out $80 a pop for tickets in the first balcony. Do we now have our very own ‘Golden Oldies’? Shudder.

The second conclusion seems to be that like Sgt. Peppers, or Pet Sounds, this generation has now begun to collectively anoint their own albums from their own youth into the ‘classic’ category, wherein they are held in such high regard that even ‘B’ sides and outtakes are worth poring over and celebrating, despite the fact that they originally landed in the dustbin.

doolittle

The thinking seems to be that with Sgt. Peppers, or Pet Sounds, or (presumably) Doolittle, the music documented on these masterpieces are such great works of genius that we are willing to dive into the obscure fringe elements of the recordings in order to glean whatever further insight we can into the proper album’s origin, creation and meaning.

So does DooIittle belong in such rarefied company? Maybe. It depends who you ask. ‘Nevermind’, ‘Siamese Dream’ or ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ seem more obvious modern-day contenders. But judging by the raucous reaction Tuesday night once a the first ‘proper’ song of the album (Debaser) began, it is certainly a contender. That the Pixies chose to start the concert that way – which is asking an awful lot, even from an adoring audience (‘We had to go back and learn these songs’ Kim Deal confessed) – does suggest they are thinking more about their legacy as a band and the importance of their work.

Once the concert ‘truly’ began and things got rolling it was all uphill. No repartee, few visual enhancements besides a translucent projection screen, practically zero movement on stage: no matter. The band banged out song after song with gusto, at times notable glee, and volume. Lots and lots of volume. What? The reds of the guitar and blues of the bass often became an in-between purple, muddied further by the super-amp’d drums and caterwauling vocals into a brownish sort of noise you do not expect at Massey Hall. Then again, this is The Pixies. The is the singer who taught Kurt Cobain how to scream. These are the acknowledged inventors of the soft-loud-soft dynamic that defined grunge and alternative music for almost a decade. So if subtleties were occasionally lost in the mayhem, so be it. People wanted to hear Frank Black scream and he did not disappoint.

The more musical and popular songs of the night (perhaps inevitably) stood out. ‘Here Comes your Man’ was head-bobbing fun. ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ was sing-along Heaven. The latter had some beautiful visual accompaniments and provided the highlight of the concert “if Man is 5 / then the Devil is 6 / and God is 7!!!” Still don’t know what that means but they seem to and it just sounds so cool.

Unlike Nirvana’s last show in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1994 where they conspicuously avoided playing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ we were indulged in the encore by ‘Gigantic’ and ‘Where is My Mind?’. Who cares if you only know it from Fight Club, you’re here aren’t you? Sing along! That was the inclusive spirit of the evening.

Lastly – for someone like myself who is not a Pixies expert, and not deserving of the title ‘fan’, more like ‘admirer’, it was startling to realize how completely so much of the ‘alternative’ music in the early 90’s really was based upon the sound, structure and texture of The Pixies, from Nirvana to Pavement to Green Day, even some Radiohead (Creep).  When asked about where ‘Teen Spirit’ came from Kurt Cobain said he ‘probably ripped off some old Pixies song’. While others would argue it came from Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’, it’s clear Kurt knew what he was talking about. Look no further than the very first song (Debaser) to find where most of Teen Spirit began. ‘Respek’ as Ali G would say.

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