Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson, IV is playing the suburbs. Which, sounds less strange than saying that Black Francis is playing the suburbs. It’s a first tier suburb, yes, but also staged at a venue (The Birchmere) known more for catering to the suburban supper club crowd than a rock and roll audience. It’s an old school dinner theater setup, and the 48-year old Pixies frontman has attracted a crowd of 1989s finest hipsters, now the proud owners of riding lawn mowers and other grown-up ephemera but still echoing the hairstyle of their favorite musician, by nature’s hand if not their barber’s.
It’s been quite the month for Pixies fans, The Breeders having rolled through town a week and a half earlier. While Kim Deal’s outfit didn’t treat their audience with any of her better-known band’s songs, it seems a lock that Black Francis will be more inclined.
He’s touring with Reid Paley, the gravelly-voiced troubadour from Brooklyn with whom Francis released an eponymous album, Paley + Francis. Paley commands the stage with an agressive delivery and awkward stance; his legs bow outwards as he perches on the outside of his feet. He’s toting a vintage Gretsch, one that doesn’t take too kindly to tuning at this stage of its life cycle. Paley’s precarious posture is echoed in a persona that seems just slightly unbalanced. It’s unsettling in a quintessentially rock and roll manner, more Randy Quaid than Unabomber. Jack Johnson, he’s not — thank God — it’s more Tom Waits meets Stray Cats.
Those tuning issues lead to what Paley terms “uncomfortable silences.” But they’re not, really, because he possesses a subversive wit that keeps it light, interesting, and memorable. “Some of the high points of my life were awkward silences,” he notes, “but don’t get a swelled head…this isn’t one of them.” His extensive history with Black Francis goes back to the times when the Pixies were opening up for him, and his brief set offers obvious clues as to why the mutual affilliation has continued throughout the years. That affiliation is perhaps referenced most directly when he performs “I’m Not Dead (I’m in Pittsburgh),” which he composed for his compatriot’s 2006 album, Fast Man Raider Man.
Black Francis arrives on stage as the audience has mostly finished their overpriced dinners, sporting a Fender Jaguar plugged into a vintage Vox amp that was almost fried the preceding evening due to the clumsiness of a club worker and a pitcher of indeterminate liquid. They traveled with it upside down, apparently, and that episode has supposedly inspired the set list, which begins with “Wave of Mutilation.” He continues “surfing a nautical vibe” with “The Swimmer” and then “Mr. Grieves,” noting that around 75% or so of his songs contain some sort of water reference, fittingly enough given the composition of the earth and the human body. He says this as his audience is packing away beer after beer, elevating their water and alcohol percentages accordingly. And yes, at this point it seems appropriate to venture an opinion…this is pretty damn fun, despite the venue.
Francis is bespoke in what some have referred to as a Canadian Tuxedo: he’s resplendent, head-to-toe, in denim. His voice is strong and resonant, always distinctive and utterly unmistakable. But, there is clearly something missing (on some of those Pixies songs in particular) when the performance is a guy and a guitar, the full band occupied elsewhere. This show is a stand-in, in a sense, filling a void that is any amount of time without a live Pixies performance.
He’s in a jocular mode, wondering aloud if cactus is a vegetable as prelude to…”Cactus.” He talks about the need to move on to songs about vegetables, french fries, murder, and drugs. With painful overtones he croons, “put a needle in my arm,” his voice a perfect match for the pathos of the sentiment in “All Around the World.” The drug theme becomes almost too poignant when he breaks out “Tight Black Rubber,” but banter between songs helps ease the intensity, highlighting that this performance is meant to be relaxed rather than virtuosic.
At points in “You Can’t Break a Heart in Half” his vocals seem more Thurston Moore than Frank Black, his guitar retaining the idiosyncratic sound of its iconic master. There isn’t a lot to look at in this setting, so there are points where one again wishes for that full band experience: the lights are pretty much static, and Francis doesn’t stray far from the mic. But just as quickly as that thought enters, he shatters it with the Pixies classic, “Where is My Mind?” The assembled greet it with warm recognition, and it’s properly paced to work well as solo performance. It recalls some of those early Sonic Youth songs patterned upon the noises of solitary reflection a kid might make, alone in their room having been sent to bed early as punishment for a youthful transgression.
The set marches onward, a fairly weak version of “Velouria” perhaps the greatest example of a song that would benefit from the full band treatment. He pulls out a new song, “Silver Snail,” where his voice morphs into something (shockingly) resembling the vox of Colin Meloy. And then, he pulls out “Gouge Away,” perhaps the most perfect Pixies song ever recorded. It’s an inferno, raising the roof of a venue not accustomed to this much piss and vinegar. A gentle version of Gram Parsons’ “Wheels” marks the end of the set.
The encore features Paley + Francis, a welcome change of pace from the guy-and-a-guitar thing we’ve seen all night, allowing for some interplay and a change of pace. The three song mini-set offers a clue as to why they chose to work together, and culminates with a cover of Kinky Freedman’s “Wild Man From Borneo,” a conclusion befitting the wild men from Brooklyn and Boston.