I saw the Pixies play last night in San Jose’ s Civic Auditorium. The stage looks out over an old basketball court, which seems fitting because the concert proves there are no slam-dunks in rock ‘n’ roll.
The Pixies played two sold-out shows Monday night in San Francisco, and seemed content to pick up an easy paycheck for another 90-minute stroll down memory lane 40 miles south in San Jose on Tuesday. How hard could it be to fill an old auditorium that holds maybe 2,000 in a city with a population of 900,000-plus?
Harder than the Pixies’ handlers expected, I imagine.
I noticed it the first time the light show cast those big white high-beam headlight spots out from the stage onto a room barely half-full.
Granted, San Jose’s live-music scene is on life-support at best. But the Pixies are legends, even if they haven’t had a great album in 15 years. Frank Black, the chubby bald lead singer, has had some interesting solo albums and Kim Deal, the bass player, had a good gig for awhile leading a band called the Breeders. The Pixies were all the rage back in the late ’80s: way cool, way ironic, way sarcastic. Indie-rock darlings adored by all right-thinking fans of piercing, catchy guitar licks and songs about the lighter side of debasement and toxic sludge from New Jersey.
A band this cool could never become a nostalgia act, right?
Well, it must be time to officially welcome the Pixies to the oldies circuit — what else to say when the band plays so many gems from its beloved “Doolittle” album that you’d think it’d been released last week rather than 1989?
In the Pixies’ prime, the lead singer called himself Black Francis. He sang demented songs with a sarcastic edge that told us he was really just sorta kidding around here. And his lead guitarist, Joey Santiago, coined blazing riffs that cemented the sarcasm theme. Together with a killer rhythm section of Kim Deal on bass and David Lovering on drums, the Pixies created a screamingly catchy sound.
Last night, it seemed like Black Francis/Frank Black and Deal were punching the clock. The Black One’s voice has none of the edgy wail of old, and Deal looks like the mother of a couple middle schoolers who’s playing in a rock band to pay for their summer camp. They’re credited as the creative force behind the Pixies but they’re not showing me much, enthusiasmwise. At least Deal smiles most of the way through.
Santiago, though, seems genuinely proud of those riffs he came up with way back when. He plays with verve, determination, precision. I knew last night that no matter what supremely cool lyrics Deal/Black wrote, Santiago’s the man behind the Pixies’ signature sound.
Lovering pounds his drums with equal power. At one point, he throws a drumstick over to Santiago, who does some slide work with it at the top of his guitar’s neck. Then he throws the stick back to Lovering, who catches it on the fly and doesn’t miss a beat.
Nice to see two guys having some fun up there.
The Pixies played for about 90 minutes, clocked out and moved on down the road to L.A. They were worth seeing, another of the greats from way back when to add to my life list.
So today I’m thinking about those blinding lights shining out over the audience. Those lights are not about us, they’re about the rock star’s desperate need not only to hear the fans, but to actually see them.
What comforting lies do they tell themselves when those lights illuminate the reality that they can’t fill this room on this night? The bandmates could tell themselves, “well, San Jose’s just a lame town with no taste in music.” Or it could think “well, everybody in the Bay Area who wanted to see us got their chance at the Warfield on Monday.” But I can’t help imagining them seeing their future in the empty spaces at the San Jose Civic.
A rock concert makes us vividly aware of the fact they — the band — are up there, and we, the fans, are down here. There’s something wonderfully equalizing about seeing a once-great band up there trying to prove it still deserves that spotlight, and looking around the room and realizing how many people think otherwise. Because apart from the 500 or so of us in the room, it’s damn near everybody.
That’s more than equalizing, come to think of it. It’s downright humbling. I’m not sure I’d wish it on anybody.