In Defense of the Pixies’ “Doolittle” Tour

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Jim DeRogatis, veteran Chicago Sun-Times music critic, has a beef with the Pixies’ latest tour. This time, the band that reunited in 2004 is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its classic album Doolittle by performing the record in full. The notoriously cranky DeRogatis refers to Black Francis, Kim Deal and co. as “a cynical corporation cashing in on blatant nostalgia — a hipper version of Creedence Clearwater Revisited or Journey,” and calls them out for failing to produce any new music in the five years since they’ve been back together. And as far as the show itself goes, well, according to DeRogatis, “None of it was embarrassing, but none of it was extraordinary, either.”

Although we were slightly daunted by this take-down, we showed up optimistic and excited to last night’s Pixies performance at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. And we were far from disappointed. After the jump, we give ten (admittedly Kim Deal-oriented) reasons why Jim DeRogatis is wrong about the Doolittle tour.

1. The stage design: Gripe, if you want, about the ticket prices for this tour. We sure did. But it’s nice to see that some of the funds went into a cool stage setup. The Pixies play in front of a giant, Flaming Lips-style screen, allowing them to screen Un Chien Andalou before greeting the crowd and incorporate some simple, generally adorable, video elements into their set. The four moving, connected globes of light at the top of stage were pretty cool, too.

Below: Photo from 11/23/2009 performance, via TLC Blog on Flickr.

2. The B-sides: DeRogatis dismisses the quartet of B-sides the band performs before launching into Doolittle proper as not “especially noteworthy on record or onstage.” But for a real Pixies geek, nothing could be farther from the truth. Hasn’t the High Fidelity dude in all of us been waiting a lifetime to hear the band chuckle through “Weird at My School”?

3. Kim Deal’s backing vocals on “Debaser”: You haven’t really heard Doolittle until you’ve heard Deal’s crisp, clear and clean voice repeating “debaser” live, providing the negative space to counter Black Francis’ hysterical shouting. She’s an oasis of purity in a song about aspiring to corruption.

4. Black Francis’ voice: How many indie rock frontmen do you know who can go from a whisper to full-on James Brown in five seconds or less? Black Francis accomplishes all this and more. He may no longer look like the kind of guy who can keep his energy up all the way through a 90-minute set — and that’s part of why his vigor is such a treat. From the climax of “Debaser,” all the way through the panic-attack finale of “Gouge Away,” his perfectly modulated screams gave us goosebumps.

5. Kim Deal on “Here Comes Your Man”: The coolest bassist of the past two decades has still got it, and nowhere is she more powerful than on the song with the world’s catchiest bass line.

6. David Lovering: Amid the all-out lovefest surrounding Black Francis and Kim Deal, Pixies drummer Lovering doesn’t get enough recognition. But he sounded fantastic last night, sitting atop a veritable mountain of instruments and hitting the drums with eye-popping speed. Plus, his plaintive croon on hipster Valentine’s Day mixtape staple “La La Love You” was downright swoon-worthy.

7. Kim Deal as unofficial emcee: The band left the onstage banter to Deal, and although she didn’t say that much, she couldn’t have been a more congenial or enthusiastic host, narrating her way through the B-sides and informing us, a few songs before the end of Doolittle, that we were approaching the “deep cuts.” At one point, she impishly teased, “Are there any songs you want us to skip?” Deal maintained a wide, irrepressible grin for the duration of the performance, dispelling any of our reservations about the band’s motivations for the tour.

8. Joey Santiago’s guitar on “Hey”: Like the rest of the Pixies, Santiago turned in a pitch-perfect performance. But never was his signature sprawling, screaming guitar sound more welcome or evident than on “Hey.”

9. Two versions of “Wave of Mutilation”: Fans know that the Pixies recorded two versions of “Wave of Mutilation” — both the Doolittle cut and a spooky, hushed “UK Surf” rendition that appeared on the soundtrack to teen-angst classic Pump Up the Volume. The former fits the Pixies’ trademark loud-quiet-loud template, while the latter is a study in control. Playing the alternate take during the band’s first encore, Black Francis’ performance brought to mind a pot about to boil over. But, to his credit, he kept a lid on it.

10. Black Francis’ arm around Kim Deal: We all know the Pixies legend. We’ve heard the tales of strife between Francis and Deal. But just as the band was about to leave the stage before its first encore, Francis threw his arm around Deal’s shoulder. They waved and grinned (yes, reader: Black Francis grinned). Perhaps the togetherness wasn’t entirely genuine. But it sure warmed our Pixies-loving soul.

Bonus: Jay Reatard as opener: We hadn’t realized there would be opening act, and, truth be told, we were hoping there wouldn’t be one… that is until Jay Reatard took the stage, his mop of curly, blond hair obscuring his face. Few audience members seemed to understand what they were looking at, but we appreciated Reatard’s ballsily brusque delivery. He made no overtures to the audience, failed to mention the evening’s much-anticipated Pixies performance and even managed to rock out on a plugged-in acoustic guitar. Our companion estimated that he made it through 25 songs in 30 minutes, shouting out the title of each before launching in with full energy.