Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

The Pixies at the Aragon

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When a group of revered and influential rockers come back together after a decade of acrimonious separation and/or inactivity, all but the most hard-hearted punks can grant them one lap around the reunion circuit playing the old should-have-been-hits, if only to collect the accolades and the cash that probably eluded them the first time.

Boston's proto-alternative quartet the Pixies took that victory lap in 2004. Now, while they remain popular enough to play three nights at the Aragon Ballroom--Friday and Saturday sold out, though Thursday only was about half full--it's hard to consider them anything but a cynical corporation cashing in on blatant nostalgia--a hipper version of Creedence Clearwater Revisited or Journey and whoever is singing with that group these days.

Bandleader Black Francis, bassist Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering have had nearly five years during their second act to prove that they are once again a vital, vibrant and forward-moving creative unit. Instead, absent even the whiff of a new album, the twist they've put on their latest tour is that it's the 20th anniversary celebration of "Doolittle," their second and best studio album, and an epic of free-associated weirdness, twisted sexual imagery and religious symbolism.

Before launching into the album proper on night one at the Aragon Thursday, the group screened "Un chien andalou," the 1929 Surrealist film by Luis Bunel and Salvador Dali that inspired some of the songs' lyrics. Then the band let loose a salvo of B-sides from the same era--"Dancing the Manta Ray," "Weird at My School," "Bailey's Walk" and "Manta Ray"--none of them especially noteworthy on record or onstage.

Finally we were into a track-by-track reading of 1989's still inscrutable classic, starting with "Debaser," rolling through the standouts "Here Comes Your Man" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven," bogging down in the middle of side two just like the vinyl LP and wrapping up with "Gouge Away."

Black Francis screamed and shouted, and Deal added the skewed harmonies. Santiago churned out those unique acid-surf riffs, and Lovering hammered the drums like Dave Grohl's uncle. And throughout, they all showed their mastery of those quiet/loud/quiet dynamic shifts that became an alternative-rock trope.

None of it was embarrassing, but none of it was extraordinary, either. The Pixies were a stilted, static band that added little fire to the songs in live performance in '89, and the same is true in '09. This time, however, you could buy a live digital recording of the show you just saw for $25 on the way out, to relive the experience you already bought with your $44.75 ticket.

Of course, reliving the experience is what the new millennial Pixies are all about. And they seem happy to continue facilitating that as long as people want to keep buying it.

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22 Comments

Jim,
Your opinion is your opinion, but comparing this show to a reunion of Journey, is pretty snotty and pretentions.
I think you went into the show with preconceived skepticism and didn’t enjoy yourself because of it.
There is nothing wrong with nostalgia; unfortunately, as we all grow older, recapturing the joys of our youth help us deal with the monotony of our lives.
We are not all local celebrities that get to indulge in their passions to earn a living.
And what band does not capitalize on its fans, touring is what they do for a living.
I’m truly disappointed in your curmudgeonly elitist attitude.

Jim,
Your opinion is your opinion, but comparing this show to a reunion of Journey, is pretty snotty and pretentions.
I think you went into the show with preconceived skepticism and didn’t enjoy yourself because of it.
There is nothing wrong with nostalgia; unfortunately, as we all grow older, recapturing the joys of our youth help us deal with the monotony of our lives.
We are not all local celebrities that get to indulge in their passions to earn a living.
And what band does not capitalize on its fans, touring is what they do for a living.
I’m truly disappointed in your curmudgeonly elitist attitude.

Ah Jim. I think you're missing the point. These are the Pixies. They're amazing. I saw them in 2004 (when they toured because supposedly Joey Santiago needed the money, and I happily gave him some of mine) and I saw them before that in 1989 at the Metro.

When I listen to Doolittle now, I hear a record that could land today and blow minds, even with the many fantastic Pixies-esque records that have been release by other bands since then. And I'm not some aching-for-nostalgia-they-don't-make-good-records-anymore type fan. I go to see tons of shows a year and attend SXSW with the determination to find something new that I'll play the crud out of after I buy it until I find the next one.

So you see, I don't see any reason the Pixies have to put out some new record just to show they are a forward looking band. I'm still pretty happy hearing them play the old stuff. If that makes them somehow similar to CCR and Journey, then I agree on that small point. However, I think the critical point is that the Pixies were never, in any other way, similar to CCR and Journey -- most importantly in the financial category.

I'm happy to keep supporting this band financially. And perhaps I just don't have as good an audio system as you, but I don't think watching a video is ever as good of a substitute as seeing and hearing a band in person. Someday we're not going to be able to do that anymore.

"Of course, reliving the experience is what the new millennial Pixies are all about. And they seem happy to continue facilitating that as long as people want to keep buying it."

I don't think this is exclusive to the Pixies. It might be more accurate to say something like, "of course, reliving the experience is what the past decade has been all about." Begrudging a band for still having a fanbase after twenty years is not the best way to make this point.

Or, if you are going to say something of that sort-- that anything beyond a "victory lap" is a cash grab-- apply it to all reunited bands (recent Sound Opinions guests the Jesus Lizard come to mind), instead of lauding them for having the good sense to get back out there. Otherwise, this just comes across as a Pixies-vendetta piece, which I'm sure it isn't.

Two back-to-back sold-out shows is two back-to-back sold-out shows. I say good for them.

Jim is right. I'm a longtime Pixies fan, and I was pumped for my first live show. But the set lacked energy, and the crowd was dead. I like the B-sides, but I got the feeling that most folks were unfamiliar with stuff. Which makes me wonder why Frank Black & Co. (or is he Black Francis again?) opened with something low-key and somewhat obscure like Dancing the Manta Ray. They should have smacked us with Debaser right off the bat and then sprinkled the B-sides throughout the set. Instead, we wandered through a slow start only to fall into a forced march through the album (in album order!). Not until the encores did we get surprise treats like Planet of Sound and Dig For Fire.

Still... I would do it again. And I'll pay $50 for the Trompe Le Monde tour, if (or when) it rolls around. I mean, it's the Pixies! And I'll take slightly stilted Pixies over most anything else.

Hi, Jim. I see that you've let your tired, lazy assumptions get in the way of reality. Doolittle or Surfer Rosa (or about 10 or 15 Frank Black songs) could be cut today and command a real audience. Take a walk over to YouTube sometime (do they still let you guys access the Internet in the shell that is the Sun-Times?), and click on any of 20 videos that are up there. Scroll down to the comments sections. I think what you'll find is that many people born AFTER the Pixies find them vital, right now.

If that's the mark of a has-been tour group, then we need more of them.

While I see your point, I don't see that the band has any other choice. Writers, critics and fans have built the Pixies up to the point that any new material they attempt will be severely criticized and compared to their past works. Just look at how tarnished the legacy of the Stooges reunion got when they released The Weirdness. The Pixies are smart for not following that same road.

Now as for your opinion that "Dancing The Manta Ray" & "Manta Ray" are not noteworthy, You're Wrong! I loved when they played them in 1989, and complained that those two songs were missing from the 2004 show I saw.

At least Black Francis didn't pull a Billy Corgan and accumulate less talented musicians, put it under his old bands name, then continue to write a new album that was a cookie cutter version of his old bands sound. THEN go on to release about 7 different versions of said album so he could rip off his fan base and make it appear his was still relevant through record sales. At least Black Francis is honest about ripping off his fans. He gives them what they really want, which is to play the s--- he was playing back when he could still write a kick ass tune.

I was wondering when Billy Corgan's name would pop up. Good God, I have to actually say that I actually agree with Jim this time (I am worried the Seventh Seal has been broken) as far as The Pixies are concerned and especially when the whole Smashing Pumpkins issues of "Where's James and D'arcy?" or "It isn't the Pumpkins without ALL of the original members" creep up.

I am wondering what state we have reached in music when artists who tour endlessly as a heartless, souless jukebox have more validity than another band-for better or for worse-which played a two night, two-part,six hour,50 song concert last year.

With The Smashing Pumpkins, perhaps there are so many reasons why Billy, James, D'Arcy and Jimmy SHOULDN'T be together anymore that it just wouldn't make sense for them to suffer through the misery of a "Greatest Hits" tour just so some people can relive 1993. At least the reconfigured Pumpkins gave people something to argue about, something to have an opinion about, something to challenge the audience and even fight over.

It just doesn't seem that The Pixies even care a whit about that and after the initial reunion glow (which I basked in as well) there is a certain cynicism that is apparant with their continued re-hashing of past glories without offering anything new. And they obviously don't seem to even like being around each other anyway, so why do it at all?

I cannot help but to wonder which band member is financially destitute or has some massive payments to deal with because I just don't feel that this is remotely about the music anymore. The Pixies collective teeth feel so removed right now.

I saw the Pixies multiple times during their original heyday, and again at Lollapalooza in 2005. I agree with Mr. DeRogatis. The band was pretty static in live performance in '89, and certainly remains so. The difference is this: in '89 it was starkly cool, and in '09 it's been done before. Charles Thompson has never been the warmest individual, and being "a cynical corporation" may not be the Pixies' true intent--but it's not exactly incorrect, either.

Jim,

You should have gone to tonight's show instead. The place was packed, the crowd was into it and most of them knew the B-sides, some of which was a real treat to experience live. The set was great and tonight was probably the best time I've seen them play live, including 2 shows in 2005 and 2 in the 90's (when they hated each other). Great show.

And the crowd was a curious mix of alt-rockers from the 90s and kids who never heard of Pixies until probably well after they broke up.

So don't begrudge a band for being able to bring it with 20-year old material so well.

And I'm actually kind of glad they don't phone it in on a new album like so many reunited bands, which is a bad idea for such an iconic band. Besides, Black Francis and Kim Deal would probably kill each other if locked into a recording studio.

I agree with Jim. Frank Black & the Catholics live had 10x more energy and showmanship than the Pixies show last night.


I saw the Pixies back in The Day and frankly, I have no desire to see them again. They were pretty boring then and 20 years and 40 pounds later, I really have no desire to listen to the same exact songs played exactly the same way.

Compare them to Dinosaur Jr, another classic, influential 80s band that reformed in 2005 and who both DeRogatis and Greg Kot totally ignore for some reason. They did a couple reunion-type tours, playing a couple tours of their old classics including Lollapalooza. They then went on to release two critically acclaimed records (which again Jim and Greg ignored) and tour relentlessly, playing over 450 shows in the last 4.5 years, playing here in Chicago 8 times in that time (which again Jim and Greg ignored, most recently last month). The tours now include almost all new material playing to many younger fans as well as Oldsters like me. Looking at the Pixies in relation to them, it's not even up for debate that the Pixies are in it for the $$ and the $$ alone.

Perhaps once Jim & Greg finish their collective circle jerk over the Jesus Lizard they will give Dinosaur the credit they deserve.

I think the best comparison to make is to Mission of Burma, who opened for the Pixies the first and only time I saw them. I was blown away by Burma and the Pixies were lame. I'm a big fan of both, but I have no respect for the Pixies to tour tour tour without releasing new music. Burma started back up again after a long hiatus, but have three LPs, all of which have attempted to do new things with the ole bass/guit/drum rock roll. The Pixies have done absolutely nothing to explore or further their sound and impact on music. Tis sad.

the pixies were fine. i blame the crowd for sucking, and therefore putting a dampening on the vibe. i don't know if its the average attendee's old age or the economy's impact on people buying booze, but its getting LAME. worse than even the past 5 years where the internet's impact on peoples' social skills started to manifest itself. i'm so glad i grew up in the 90's.

and jim. get over yourself. you have no clue what you're talking about, and have lost all rational grasp you may have once had on OBJECTIVITY. you're completely swayed by your personal opinions, and use your position to drive home your own agenda and fav bands. so blatant its pathetic. no wonder its so hard to tell the blogger opinion rants from the supposed "journalists" these days.

Like Scott and Tom above, I definitely have more respect for bands that get back together and make new music...moreso than those that just do nostalgia tours. Even if the new music arguably isn't as good as back in the heyday, at least there's an artistic effort being made.

Most bands that get back together without putting out new music are all in it for the money (STP, RATM, The Police)...but some seem to genuinely be having fun. Like Jesus Lizard, Faith No More, Hum or Sunny Day (wait, SDRE had 1 new song)...


Jim,

It would be hard to consider your criticism anything but a cynical critic cashing in on blatant nostalgia for when rock was 'real'. Stop looking down at your What Would Lester Bangs Do bracelet and look up to see how things have changed. Musicians make money touring. It is a free market solution that allows the fans decide their worthiness. And bands like The Pixies have a both loyal fans from back in the day reliving their youth and new fans that have picked up their albums and fallen in love.
I don't mind you saying the show lacked heart because of the band/crowed/venue/etc. There are plenty of reasons to criticize a show to give the reader a real sense of what it was like to be there, good or bad. But to blame it on 'cashing in' is to hold up a Utopian rock filter that never existed in the first place. If Black would have had a long interlude in the middle of Here Comes Your Man where he brought out a bottle of Pert and tried to convince everyone to go out to their local Walmart to buy some right after the show, THEN "cashing in" could enter your vocabulary. But playing the songs he wrote with the actual band members that helped bring them to life, no matter how long ago that moment of creative bliss happened, is a good thing for ALL musicians to strive for. It's clearly a good thing for you, since it allows you to quickly regurgitate your standard talking points, and still get paid instead of transporting the reader to the moment, and make them feel like they were standing right next to you.

Enough about the Pixies - what about that other rad nostalgia trip about Chicago Punk - You Weren't There DVD - now that's a nostalgia Doc Marten up yo arsenal.

Jim,

Why do you care how much tickets cost? I bet you used your media credential to get in. When's the last time you paid for a ticket?

Yeah, the Pixies have become quite business-like, but at least they're still sounding great. This tour was worth it to hear "Manta Ray," "Silver" and a couple of other tunes that otherwise never would've been learned. The band, especially Black Francis, sound far better than they did during the original reunion tour in 2004.

Don't worry, now that the Pixies are seeing success with the Doolittle tour, you can complain about their Come On Pilgrim/Surfer Rosa, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde tours that they'll probably cash in on. Just enjoy it, especially since you'll probably have not spent a penny to get in.

And I agree with Tom on Dino Jr. That reunion has paid off way more than the Pixies. I remember seeing the Dino Jr reunion round one at Lollapalooza in 2004, and it was like rock school. Every other lame "postpunk" band there should've taken notes. Dinosaur Jr is still incredible. No gimmicks. Just shred. And kinda businesslike just like the Pixies. So what...

Can't wait for you to dis the Pavement reunion. Now that's a totally cash-in, mercenary tour, especially for Malkmus. Young fans paying top dollar to try to relive an indie golden era that the band is so far removed from yet willing to cash in on. But I'm sure the shows will still be fun, so I'll check one of them out.

There is a gap. Fans either want to: A. be within the liveness of a live event, be rewarded for seeing a live band through a personal connection...OR B. they want to witness their idols performing songs they love. If you were an A fan, the show was a disappointment. B fan, the show was good. My thoughts here: http://lunasphere.com/2009/11/23/i%E2%80%99m-all-confused-about-the-pixies-show-chicago-aragon-ballroom/

Perhaps the story here isn't the Pixies (as the most lively of writing comes from your "corporate" statement), after all. You should go after (assuming you haven't) the fact that the music industry has morphed into a 1950s ethos of tour for your food. Record stores have disappeared (both the indie and shopping mall, mind you) and artists are left with few options for a standard of living (both past and present). Now "corporate" economics would state that if there is demand, there should be supply. What you are asking of the Pixies and I assume every artist is to abandon corporate convention and take risk (during a recession) for the art (above all else). Then, I would assume, you would ask the artist to produce (i.e. throw the money down) for such a venture. This belief would work in FantasyLand; however, is out of touch with the music market today. To discredit the Pixies, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., et. al. is to acknowledge that the climate is changed... for good. With a poor economy, music fans will be able to see whoever they want, whenever. Neil Young, Bon Jovi, Chuck Berry... the whole lot of them. It's called a 401K. There's your story. The Pixes have only conformed to the business norm. Still doesn't sit well with you? Then how about you quit your job, finance your own creative writing and see if it sells. It's not about romance, it's commerce. It's entertainment as commerce. Considering the industry you're in (which is on its last leg), I think you would understand this concept.

"cynical corporation cashing in on blatant nostalgia"

oh man screw the pixies for wanting money. sell outs man, total bummer on my authentic mellow. don't the pixies realize that you can't be happy making money doing something you don't truly love with every inch of your heart?

don't the pixies realize that they are cheating their fans by making decisions based on trying to get "paid" doing their "job"?

jim this review is pretty bad bro.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on November 19, 2009 10:28 PM.

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