Deal or No Deal
Pixies were never much for convention. Perhaps that explains why the band booked a 2,000-plus-capacity theater in a secondary city in a red state on Super Bowl Sunday. Despite the hold-up and a soggy trudge through the rained-out empty streets of downtown Nashville, we made it inside the Ryman in time to catch the last three or four songs from openers Cults. To our delight, Cults were good enough to hold our attention — the New York City band, which is a duo on paper but performed as a quintet, stood flush in a line and kept toes a-tappin' with a conflation of dream-poppy, neo-'60s R&B and modern, synth-y indie pop. Augmented by singer Madeline Follin's high-pitched yet sultry, chipper quaver, Cults gave us the impression they probably have a pretty great record collection and they've studied it well.
Perhaps as a testament to even Nashville's undying reverence for the Pixies, Sunday's show appeared to be damn near sold out. That's more than 2,000 locals who missed Bob Dylan's Chrysler commercial. Attendees got pretty much what you'd expect if you've ever seen a Pixies show: Thirty-or-so songs breathlessly played back-to-back with nearly studio-worthy precision, virtually no stage banter or audience interaction, but one helluva light show. Of course, what the band lacks in crowd-milking arena-rock acrobatics, they make up for with enigmatic charisma and a catalog of songs that, by and large, can't miss.
Aside from Kim Deal stand-in bassist Paz Lenchantin, who was rockin' a bit of a retro Patti Smith look, the Pixies OGs — frontman Charles "Black Francis/Frank Black" Thompson IV, perma-death-staring guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering, the Liberty DeVitto of alternative rock — each wore a black shirt. Perhaps they're Broncos fans and were already in mourning? Or maybe they were just trying to be more like The Ramones. It was probably the latter, as the band charged onstage without saying a word and launched into an opening "Bone Machine" that sounded like it was played a solid 10 BPMs faster than the original recording. Without hesitation, that yielded to an even speedier "Wave of Mutilation," followed by an equally fast "U-Mass" that careened into the band's breakneck cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Head On" — and that was just the first 10 minutes of the set.
Par for the course, Thompson didn't break the fourth wall and address the crowd until 12 songs into the set, when he had a brain fart and forgot the opening line to "Isla de Encanta," busting into an involuntary gut laugh before briefly consulting with his bandmates to pick up the song where they stopped. So even that stage patter wasn't intentional, and come to think of it, it wasn't even directed at the audience. So, yeah, Pixies never really talked to us, though Joey Santiago did stalk the stage from wing to wing, pointing at various sections of the crowd and cueing cheers like a reluctant rock god during a characteristically excellent extended noise-guitar solo on "Vamos."
Amazingly, the 32-song set featured standbys like "Nimrod's Sun," "Cactus" and "Caribou," along with eight selections from Doolittle (the album they played in its entirety during a two-night Ryman stint in 2010), but did not include "Debaser." The band made up for that by including choice Trompe le Monde and Bossa Nova deep cuts, including the ever-creepy "Ana" and a heavenly "Havalina" that — with Lenchantin doing spot-on Kim Deal BGVs — kicked off the encore, filling the Ryman with a wistful, rum-drunk luau vibe. For Pixies die-hards, perhaps the crown jewel of the lot was a rousing and resplendent "Motorway to Roswell." The set also included six songs from the band's recent pair of mixed-review-receiving comeback EPs, along with last summer's surprise comeback single "Bagboy," which inspired Thompson's most animated performance of the night. The frontman shimmied around uncharacteristically during the instrumental sections, rocking out with his eyes closed and looking like he was actually getting lost in the music.
While "Bagboy" was otherwise just as odd and decidedly disjointed an endeavor in concert as it was in headphones, EP1 and 2 selections like "Magdalena," the sinister "Indie Cindy," the sounds-like-Pixies-covering-Sonic Youth "Snakes" and cowbell-boasting, sounds-like-Pixies-covering-AC/DC (yes, really, AC/DC) "Blue Eyed Hexe" made a lot more sense in the context of a live set saddled between outright classics like "Gouge Away" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" than they do on their respective releases. In other words: The band did a good job selling nostalgic rock fans on the new material. Especially notable was how well the bittersweet, anthemic lament "Greens and Blues" (which sounds like the kind of song Rivers Cuomo might've written when Rivers Cuomo still wrote good songs) segued into an inevitably crowd-pleasing "Where Is My Mind?" to close the main set.
Still, for The Spin, nothing beat the nasty, encore-closing, powerhouse one-two punch of "Velouria" into the borderline-industrial "Planet of Sound," which the band launched into as the house lights came up.
"Are you sure it's Road to Bonnaroo time already?" Shivering our way along Cannery Row on Monday night, The Spin felt more like we were trudging toward Sochi, the resort town in Russia where the Winter Olympics would be kicking off later this week, than anything to do with the annual ritual of sweat, sounds and substances that is the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. A glance at the calendar revealed that the big show was only four months off, so it was indeed time for the locals to gather so that we might decide who would represent us in one of three afternoon slots in Manchester. Spoiler alert: It was local rock 'n' rollers Blank Range.
Mercy Lounge was already comfortably full when The Get Togethers roared out of the gate, turning nervous energy into a furious assault on their caustic post-punk riffs and soaring indie-pop hooks. Reminiscent of St. Vincent's Annie Clark in wardrobe and angular dance moves, frontwoman Bethany Frazier spun and bounced like a marionette piloted by Igor Stravinsky, losing her mic at least once. First slot or no, they were determined to be a tough act to follow. Over at The High Watt, Elise Davis showcased another fine example of a prevailing trend in country music: specifically, the most interesting and insightful songs coming from young women. Like Grammy-winning country lady of the moment (and recent Scene cover model) Kacey Musgraves, Davis takes an unflinching look at day-to-day life, though Davis' focus is narrowed a little more on suburban millennials' concerns. With a vocal crowd cheering on her band and their chiming college-rock drive, it was clear Davis' message got across.
"We don't have gimmicks, we have songs," said The Wans' Simon Kerr, effectively throwing the gauntlet down from the Mercy Lounge stage on this most gimmick-prone of nights. We enjoyed the trio's sound, a competent hybrid of heavy blues and the darker side of alt-rock (think Jack White touring with Alice in Chains), but the songs didn't really catch our ear. There's nothing wrong with keeping it simple, but the opening song's hook hung on "I grew up in a little tiny town / ... had to write my feelings down" — we feel they can do better than that. Better luck next time, guys.
In The High Watt, Them Vibes dished out a masterful set of countrified rock 'n' soul with charisma to spare. Frontman Larry "Brother Love" Florman did his best to channel Rod Stewart by way of The Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, minus the crippling egocentrism; among other bits of well-polished stage banter, the New York native had high praise for the Nashville music community — never a bad idea if you're after their vote, but seemingly sincere nonetheless. The harmony singers and pedal steel were a nice touch on the set-closer "Shine On," though the group's period dress felt a little overdone, and we had a good chuckle at the drummer's neckbeard. Down the ramp at Mercy, Goodbye June, a sea of long hair and hats, took the stage to more than a few hoots and hollers. They unleashed a swirly, trippy and very proficient country-rock stew, which leaned a little too far toward Widespread Panic for our personal taste. We reflected, however, that this would be a perfect soundtrack to our first beer of the morning, and the fans seemed to agree: Goodbye June went on to carry the largest share of the fan vote at 18 percent.
Back at The High Watt, recent ATO signees Majestico took over. Leader Graham Fitzpenn dresses a little more John Belushi than psychedelic shaman these days, and some of the Creedence-meets-Beefheart swampiness of their early period has given way to the motorik pulse that's been creeping its way into local garage rock, but they consistently deliver a great set. Set-closer "Chelsea," which stirred up hints of Scott Walker, The Zombies and Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, benefited especially from Fly Golden Eagle/Thunderbitch guitar-slinger Ben Trimble as a secret space-rock weapon.
Meth Dad went to the trouble of rigging a balloon drop in Mercy Lounge before the show, but in accordance with Murphy's Law, the whole thing came tumbling down during Goodbye June's set instead. That didn't stop the glitter-and-sequin-coated sing-along dance party, led by Tour de Fun organizer Tyler Walker, from radiating infectious positive vibes that had even our crotchety old bones a-rattlin'. As usual with a Meth Dad set, the half of the crowd that got it appeared elated, while the other half looked as if they'd just learned how hot dogs are made. We think we'd enjoy blinking awake on a Sunday afternoon to Shy Guy's fusion of jangle pop and precision shoegaze swirls, as well as their projected backdrop of dissolving block patterns and nature films. The crowd at The High Watt seemed to dig it too — "It's weird, but I like it," said the couple behind us — but we'd have to wait another couple of hours to see where they landed in the polls.
We've given Modoc quite a few chances, and they've always fallen into that dreaded three-stars-out-of-five territory for us — they have talent and energy, and there's nothing wrong about what they do, but they just don't get under our skin the way they seem to for their excited fan base. Monday's set had a harder edge than previous ones, and we especially enjoyed the raucous guitarmonies that kicked off the last song. We still weren't won over, but we'll give 'em credit for trying. Blank Range may have pulled the headline time slot, but that didn't mean they were going to take chances. The already-full-sounding five-piece augmented themselves with a percussion player and some additional guitar help, pulling a page from Diarrhea Planet's NYE playbook as Apache Relay's Mike Harris joined in on slide and DP's own Emmett Miller and Evan Bird took on additional leads. Bottom line, this little-bit-country-little-bit-120 Minutes team boasts some of the best arrangers and players in town, and their songs and stage show offer something for everyone from guitar nerds to fist-pumping anthem-lovers, heartbroken bar-dwellers and beyond.
In a night surprisingly light on pomp and circumstance, we were genuinely impressed by the broad range of musicianship represented, though it would be nice to see more Music City hip-hop or soul in future installments; Alanna Royale kicked ass last year. There was something of a disconnect between the fans' and judges' votes Monday night (Blank Range was the only group to appear in the top three of both polls). But in the end, their mighty, meaty set won the coveted slot. Congratulations, dudes, and we'll see you in Manchester.