Live Review: Pixies and John Grant at Birmingham’s Iron City May 6

Wednesday is not generally prime time for concert attendance, but it was a busy night in Birmingham, Ala. The Alabama Theater was hosting Hozier and, a few blocks south, the legendary proto-grunge, proto-alt-rock, post-punk Pixies were playing at Iron City with former Czars front man John Grant opening. The sidewalks downtown were packed with pedestrians and parking attendants. Cars lined every street for blocks surrounding the venues. These were people that had to get up and go to work tomorrow, young professionals and a surprising number of older fans, silver-haired and well dressed. Each one still hoping to grow up to be…be a debaser.

John Grant’s solo work lacks some of the waltzing smokiness of the Czars, indulging in pop experiments and occasionally off-kilter subject matter, but there are still strong similarities between the two. Grant shot through a quick 30-minute set with just a bassist and a second keyboardist to back him. He hit most of his highlights, like “I Hate This Town” and “Sigourney Weaver,” and engaged the audience with amicable anecdotes. Fans continued to file in and fill up Iron City as Grant wrapped up his set.

The Pixies’ stage show is deceptively simple, just a couple of smoke machines and a lighting rig. The smoke fills the stage, providing a hazy, white canvas for the colored lights. However, the lights are highly choreographed to the set, flashing and changing colors violently synchronized to the Pixies’ loud, quiet, loud aesthetic. Unlike John Grant, Black Francis didn’t bother with any chitchat or crowd work. The band launched directly into the set and played feverishly through each song.

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The band front-loaded the set with favorites like “Wave of Mutilation,” and “Where is My Mind?” while peppering in tracks from last year’s Indie Cindy throughout the middle before switching predominately back to the tried and true for the finale. But the Pixies didn’t lean too heavily on their shop worn classics. The band experimented with some of their hits; halfway through “Nimrod’s Son,” the song dramatically changed tone and tempo to the point that it almost felt like the band was playing some strange medley until it started piecing the song back together again.

The entire band was well oiled, with no awkward, on-stage whisper conferences. The members moved, seemingly instinctively, from one song to the next with no breaks in-between. Guitarist Joey Santiago, in particular, is a criminally underrated performer. While the show may have been light on gimmicks, Santiago always goes big on his “Vamos” solo. He tossed his gold-top Les Paul from hand to hand and played the guitar backward with the strings facing his chest while using a talk box.

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Some fans may have been apprehensive about shelling out the money to see the Pixies in the absence of bassist Kim Deal, and she has certainly left a large pair of shoes to fill. But Paz Lenchantin fills those shoes admirably. Lenchantin is a seasoned bassist with the experience of playing in the super groups A Perfect Circle and Zwan. She nailed all of Deal’s vocals. Lenchantin stuck strictly to the bass, sadly keeping her violin in its case during the set. It would have been nice to see her inject some of her own musicality into the set, but Pixies purists were more than satisfied.

At the end of the night, the audience screamed itself hoarse for an encore, and for a moment it felt like the show was really over. But the sheer volume and tenacity of the crowd brought the band back onstage for a couple of more songs with the house lights still up. It was an amazing performance. The Pixies may be nearly 30 years old now, but the band sounds like it’s still in its prime.

Gallery – The Pixies, May 6