Concert Review: The Pixies at the Orpheum

The past weekend’s Orpheum show — sold out for weeks beforehand, and drawing an impressive range of multi-generational hipsters — wasn’t the same old thing for The Pixies.

Cover art for the Pixies EP2

Cover art for the Pixies EP2

By Brett Milano

When the Pixies last hit this area in late 2011, they played the Club Casino at Hampton Beach — the sort of venue usually reserved for the Eddie Moneys and REO Speedwagons of this world. It seemed a sign that the Boston-rooted band, by then eight years reunited with barely a scrap of new material, had gone to classic-rock purgatory once and for all.

But something funny happened since then: The Pixies decided to become a real, evolving band again. The past weekend’s Orpheum show — sold out for weeks beforehand, and drawing an impressive range of multi-generational hipsters — wasn’t the same old thing. Eight new songs were played, many oldies were substantially rearranged, and a couple of obvious numbers were missing. Sure, there was a rough spot or two. But instead of marveling at the state of college radio in 1988, you left the Orpheum wondering what this band might do next.

Of course, evolution can be messy. And some fans haven’t yet forgiven the Pixies for shedding beloved bassist/singer Kim Deal, who split during recording sessions last year (Deal’s first replacement, Muffs frontwoman Kim Shattuck has already been sacked, Paz Lenchatin now holds the slot). Likewise, a few tastemakers — specifically the folks at Pitchfork — have been less than thrilled with the nine new songs that the Pixies have released so far (on a digital single and two EP’s) — too normal and not jagged enough, they say. No denying that it’s different, but to these ears the new material sounds fine: Leader Frank Black is more of a craftsman now, hardly a surprise after the 150-odd songs he’s released as a solo artist. But there’s a spirit here you don’t hear on his many solo albums: One of the new songs, “Another Toe in the Water” (played midway through the set on Saturday) has to be the first thing he’s written that makes you think of the Beatles.

From the start Lenchatin fit in surprisingly well, handing the co-lead vocal of “Bone Machine” with ease, and filling Deal’s old role as the most animated one onstage (and currently, the only one with hair atop her head). She didn’t have to sing either of Deal’s big numbers (“Gigantic” and “Into the White,” likely dropped for good) but was a solid enough bassist and a charming enough presence to ease the Kim withdrawal. And it helped that the band stacked a bunch of obvious crowdpleasers — “Wave of Mutilation”, “U Mass,” the Jesus & Mary Chain cover “Head On” — early in the set. The new “Blue Eyed Hexe” held its own in this company: For a band that’s supposedly lost its weirdness, this AC/DC homage about a sexy sorceress wasn’t exactly run-of-the-mill.

Another new one, “Bagboy” marked drummer David Lovering’s rare use of electronic drums. But it was a more humble instrument that really caused a change: Acoustic guitar. Frank Black switched to acoustic midway through the set; the soundman gave it equal weight to Joey Santiago’s lead electric. And the layered guitars provided a new take on Pixies standards, with “Nimrod’s Son” becoming a country hoedown (just perverse enough to work) and “No. 13 Baby” closing with an actual jam. The semi-acoustic stretch had a few more new numbers, which hinted at the future direction — Less mania, more melody.

Of course, one problem with evolving bands is that they may skip over your favorite song, so you have to go home and blast “Debaser” by yourself. Which I did.

Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.

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