Something peculiar lingers in the air; a palpable sense of history and grandeur perhaps.
The high network of intricate concrete arches, the stained glass windows, the chipped cherry paint that coats the aged seats, the broad but well-worn wooden stage; in harmony they speak a language of generations, voiced in the soundless resonance of a dozen decades of live performance.
Toronto’s Massey Hall is a special place. Now a National Historic Site of Canada, its longevity is outshined only by its impeccable acoustics. A metropolis has burgeoned around and above its bricked exterior, but its innards remain unscathed by the relentless hands of modernity.
On this night, the hall would host a sold-out performance by The Pixies.
The past year was one of commotion and adaptation for The Pixies. For the first time in their intermittent 27-year existence they lost an original member. Lynchpin bassist Kim Deal unexpectedly walked away in June leaving many to erroneously assume that the band has reached its unfortunate but logical end. Deal’s whimsical harmonies and dry bass tones were integral ingredients within their influential sonic potion. Without her, it seemed the band should cease to be.
Less than one month later, in a flurry, the remaining members announced a replacement Kim (Shattuck), a new single, and a European tour. Then one September morning, a mass email heralded the arrival of EP 1, the first new multi-song release the band had put out since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
A second release, EP 2 surfaced on January 3rd.
The era of replacement Kim turned out to be a transitory one though, culminating in the prompt replacement of the replacement. Paz Lenchantin, the Argentinean-American bassist whose name can be found in the liner notes of albums by A Perfect Circle, Queens Of The Stone Age and Zwan, was chosen to fill the void.
Following her debut with the band at a surprise Massachusetts warm-up gig was the North American tour opener at Massey Hall.
The alt-rock fanboys and girls of yesteryear (most now crowned in salt-and-pepper), were gradually ushered to their seats as the So-Cal scoundrels from FIDLAR took the stage. A recycled Dead Kennedys riff fell away to a gangshout chorus of “I drink cheap beer, so what, fuck you” as they flailed and thrashed about.
“We’re called FIDLAR. That means ‘forget it Dad, it’s alright,” proclaimed tie-dye clad vocalist Zac Carper, segueing into the raucous White On White. Carper’s angst-ridden screeching at times vaguely recalled the band that was set to headline, which began to make sense when he said “Doolittle, that shit changed my life.”
The pounding treble riffs and vacuous lyrics of Max Can’t Surf felt strange in this setting; the youth and exuberance of the performers juxtaposing the age and eloquence of their surroundings. But somehow, it clicked, and despite the grumbles of a few disgruntled shit-talkers up on the mezzanine they managed to pull off a tight forty-minute appetizer.
Massey Hall’s archaic, incandescent orbs slowly dimmed. The large room filled with clamor and excitement.
The Pixies took their stage without salutations.
Three spotlights were pointed upwards from the stage at hanging concave bowls, which like flying saucers, showered ominous light down on guitarist Joey Santiago, singer Frank Black and Paz as they drifted through the tense new track Silver Snail, briefly quelling the zeal of the audience.
Keeping with the somber tone, Black curiously opted then to take lead vocals for In Heaven; a cover from the David Lynch film Eraserhead and up until recently, a Kim Deal staple. They went there. It was almost as if they wanted to instantly reassure the audience that no song would be neglected on account of her departure.
Early on in the set they sprinkled in several songs from their new EPs. The fiendish acoustic riff of Nimrod’s Son reinvigorated the audience before it underwent a loungy deconstruction. But it was that discordant strum intro and then surf melody of Here Comes Your Man that predictably got the people on their feet; Lenchantin seemingly pulling off the wide-smiled bassist role while echoing “so long, so long…”
There appeared to be monitor issues on stage however. During the very brief moments between songs the band was scurrying and conversing. Drummer Dave Lovering’s vocal mic feed fortunately found its way through the PA just in time for him to take lead for the forever-fervent La La Love You, an instrumental decrescendo leaving him alone in the spotlight singing “all I’m saying, pretty baby, la la love you, don’t mean maybe.”
Hazy blue light illuminated the reflective rectangular panels hanging from the backdrop as the band weaved in and out of the fluctuating time signatures of Indie Cindy, which was by far the most captivating of their new material.
As Black screeched stridently up into his mic he was complimented by Lenchantin’s sweet serenade. Bone Machine was the moment the slender stand-in won my approval. Her confident chiming over Black’s insistent, disjointed lyrics during Bagboy gave a new backbone to the song. At times he was peering in her direction with a scrutinizing gaze.
Their medley of the new and the obscure halted with the beguiling groove of Monkey Gone To Heaven; Santiago’s crunch guitar playing a piercing game of call-and-response with Black’s anguished wails. The on-stage interaction persisted as the row of Vox, Fender and Marshall transmitted the crying guitar tones of Hey. Black’s awkward bellows were as poignant and gripping as ever.
The horseshoe balconies of Massey Hall, lined with ornate golden rails, were speckled with trickling beams of simulated disco balls as the back rows stood in approval of the seminal Where Is My Mind. And then it was a torrent. The menacing simplicity of Gouge Away gave way to Debaser and a searing Broken Face. Blue Eyed Hexe fell off to the punk ferocity of Something Against You. No obligatory banter. No feigned civic interest. They came only to execute.
Santiago uncharacteristically took centre stage swaying his guitar to experiment with feedback and smashed sporadically at his pickup switch during an extended solo for Vamos. Tame followed.
“We traditionally like to keep the houselights on for our last song,” Black said. Eventually, his request was fulfilled as the dead bass and snarling riffage of Planet Of Sound concluded the set. They then meandered around the edge of the stage to wave, taking a moment to single out their modest new bassist. The audience expressed boisterous endorsement.
Many Pixies purists reacted harshly to the bands decision to move forward without Kim Deal. Hell, I was one of them. But throughout this show I warmed to the idea, and I didn’t appear to be alone.
Paz Lenchantin has the vocal chops and the giddy smile, but she’s also kind of an endearing figure and a rather humble compliment to the three distinct characters she shares the stage with. The band has said that Deal’s spot will be there for here should she ever decide to return, but until that day comes, Paz definitely has it covered.
Silver Snail, In Heaven, Andro Queen, Nimrod’s Son, Brick Is Red, Another Toe, Here Comes Your Man, La La Love You, Indie Cindy, Motorway To Roswell, Bone Machine, I’ve Been Tired, Tony’s Theme, Levitate Me, Bagboy, Magdelina, Snakes, Ana, Cactus, Monkey Gone To Heaven, Hey, Greens And Blues, Where Is My Mind, Gouge Away, Debaser, Broken Face, Head On, What Goes Boom, Blue Eyed Hexe, Something Against You, Vamos, Tame, Planet Of Sound