by The Spin
At the appropriate moment in Pixies' re-enactment of their album Doolittle, as drummer David Lovering laid down the funky break beat, and bassist Kim Deal — wearing a goofy grin like your cool aunt after she's realized she just mentioned smoking pot in front of all the little cousins — yelped that signature "Shake your butt!" To which Black Francis replied, a little flatly, "But not too hard." He wasn't kidding — for most of the show, Francis didn't move much, aside from twisting his left ankle like someone who wasn't trying very hard to put out a cigarette. But more on that in a minute.
As we took our seats at The Ryman Saturday night (the second night of Pixies' stand), all we could see from our vantage point in the balcony was a pulsing lattice of overlapping white lights. If there was a band down there, they were invisible to us. But we heard them, all right.
We tend to disregard all the teeth-gnashing of people who try to imagine what kinds of tortured calisthenics Johnny Cash must be doing in his grave when so-and-so or such-and-such come to defame the Ryman stage with their horrible modern pop shtick, but we have to say: It crossed our minds. Here were two guys on either end of a folding table full of computers, electronic modules and synths, playing music with no lyrics and not much more in the way of chord changes or discernable structure. And they were called Fuck Buttons! Ryman purists surely thought to themselves at some point, "At least play a real instrument," but when Fuck Buttons obliged, the result was, well ... let's just say the only thing worse than a drum circle is a drum circle made up of one guy with a drum and another guy with a computer. At a few points, the balcony shook so hard from the bass-waves that we thought maybe something bad was happening that we couldn't hear over the music. It being a certain day in September and all, that felt momentarily weird. Fuck Buttons get the Spin stamp of approval, even if the light show was set up such that we got repeatedly laser-beamed in the eyeballs.
We heard Michael Stipe was in the audience, but whether he was or not, people were obviously really pumped for the Pixies half of this show — including the guy behind us, who, when Bowie's "Changes" started over the P.A., asked his buddy, "Is this Wilco?"
Speaking of eyeballs, after the requisite cheering for the roadies as they line-checked the band's gear, clips from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou started rolling on the giant LED screen at the back of the stage. People got pretty riled up. People cheered. Seeing an auditorium full of non-art majors — respectable working people, no less — reacting with wild bursts of enthusiasm to a silent French surrealist film from the ’20s was, well ... you know. Since the premise for this tour was that Pixies were playing Doolittle, and since the first song on Doolittle is "Debaser," which references Un Chien Andalou, and since this felt very much like the dramatic build-up to the band's grand entrance to play said opening track to said album, it was, shall we say, a bit awkward when Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering walked onstage, were greeted by a roaring house, and dropped into, uh ... "Dancing the Manta Ray"? Then again, opening with a weird B-side is the kind of perverse and purposely off-putting move you admire in a punky band from the old school.
When the title card for Doolittle appeared on the screen (probably for the benefit of dudes like the dude sitting behind us), and the band launched into "Debaser," the crowd had its collective safety switched off, and a full-on shout-along celebration was given its permission to begin. Turns out, people are still crazy for this album. (Or, in the case of some we observed, people have come to love it at some point in the 21 years since it was released.) But for at least the first part of the show, it was hard to tell if the band was still crazy for the album. The rhythm section, sure — drummer Lovering cracked, crashed and bopped along like a champ from the first count-off, and bassist Deal was all energy and giddy smiles — but guitarist Joey Santiago (who we love!) looked downright glum at times, playing his parts like this whole Doolittle concept was somebody else's idea. When they got to "Here Comes Your Man" (to which the crowd predictably overreacted), Santiago finally smiled — but it was a video of Santiago smiling on the screen, not the guy onstage. Throughout the run of the album, we kept hoping he would give us some kind of sign he was enjoying our company as much as we were enjoying his. We thought maybe he would move his body in time with the music as he played his guitar, possibly even motioning with his head a bit — something we've heard referred to as "rocking out." He didn't rock out. But hey — we'll take a guitarist who sounds this good over a pick-tossing showboat any day of the week.
And Pixies did sound good, for the most part. Black Francis — even if he also seemed intent on showing as little emotion as possible throughout the album's 15-song duration — can still reach back for the shriek that puts a charge into songs like "Tame" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven," and the songs themselves still rule pretty hard. We're not sure of the last time we saw a band start their encore by playing a different version of a song they already played, but since we always preferred the slower, mellower, softer-around-the-middle version of "Wave of Mutilation" anyway, we'll just say it was perfect.