Pixies have their kind of fun onstage at the Palace

The horror, the horror: Black Francis at the Palace.

The horror, the horror: Black Francis at the Palace. Tony Nelson

“It sure looked like you were having fun up there,” is the most passive-aggressive backhanded compliment you can pay a band.

It’s a time-honored phrase you use when your coworker forces you to go see their Blueshammer cover band because you couldn’t come up with an excuse not to go for the thousandth time and when put on the spot about their set, can’t think of anything else.

But in an era where storied bands of the last millennium are sitting up in their hospital beds, yanking out the life-support systems, doing reunion tours or officially re-forming for new records—and, in some cases, selling more tickets than they ever did in the first place—the idea of “having fun up there” takes on a whole new meaning. Of course a legendary band you loved as a kid is going to play well. But as a friend of mine recently observed about seeing the Jesus Lizard on their last reunion round eight years ago, watching a band that hates each other, refuses to look at each other, and are going through the motions, isn’t nearly as interesting as seeing a local band no one’s ever heard of give it their all in a dingy rock club. If the band isn’t enjoying themselves, what’s the point?

Which brings us to the Pixies. Since their first reunion show at the Fine Line in 2004, they’ve worked the reunion circuit, lost Kim Deal (again!), eventually became a fully operational band once more, and put out two records in the last three years. But still, I walked into the Palace last night with a little bit of existential trepidation—what does a Pixies show in 2017 mean? And more importantly, how do you tell if a band’s having fun when they never looked like they were having that much fun in the first place?

Pixies took the stage to a roaring crowd with an immediate statement of intent. Where set lists in other towns have opted for more immediate deviations into newer material, Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering, and newly permanent bassist Paz Lenchantin launched right into “Wave Of Mutilation,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” and “Gouge Away,” all sounding as close to dead-on perfect as a fan would expect.

Throughout the rest of the 33-song, nearly two-hour set, the band mixed older hits and the occasional deeper cut with newer material, leaning heavily on their latest release, Head Carrier, and the crowd—at maximum bouncing-in-one-spot enthusiasm—responded accordingly. There are two types of Pixies fans: Those core few who absorb every single second of every single album with hyper-attached obsessiveness, and those who mostly know the surprisingly numerous hits. Normally the latter would be judged as fair-weather. But it’s the songs that everybody knows, much more than the deep cuts, that really make the Pixies, because that’s where their songwriting takes conventional forms outside of their comfort zones—dropping instruments abruptly, adding dissonance over rock structures that were standard long before Buddy Holly died.

Sometimes, as displayed last night on deeper cuts and newer material, it doesn’t quite click. There’s a chunk of their standard surf/garage work (the stuff only the diehards know) that owes more than its fair share—and was frankly done better by—their Boston indie progenitors the Modern Lovers. But what makes the Pixies unique is that they get it right far more often than they don’t, and every time they do, the song becomes an instant classic. At their best, the Pixies make memorable hits out of songs that no one else could—and last night, they crushed almost every one.

Still, it took a while for my core question to be answered. The Pixies, and especially Black Francis, have always been aloof, bordering on irascible—call this punk for INTJs. Huge light rigs dominated the stage, bathing the guy born Charles Thompson IV in backlight, casting shadows across his shaven dome so he resembled Brando during his Apocalypse Now monologue. No words were spoken for much of the night—the rare empty space of downtime were filled by noise from Santiago’s guitar. For the first half of the set, the only exception was Lenchantin, who’s performed in more than her fair share of alt-rock supergroups, and still seemed giddy to be on stage.

But something shifted during “Nimrod’s Son,” and Frank cracked a smile. Santiago played a solo on his instrument cable. They blew the opening to “Here Comes Your Man,” and then laughed about it. The edges seemed to melt. They wrapped the set with the slower (and sorry, fans, but vastly inferior) “UK Surf” version of “Wave Of Mutilation,” sort of a tidy bookend to the start of the set. Rather than engage the cliché of leaving the stage, they just gathered at the front for bows and a standing ovation, then grabbed the instruments again for an encore, starting with “All I Think About Now” and then a barn-burning rip through “Debaser,” complete with all house lights in the room on.

My question was answered: They were having fun up there. Meticulously plotted, impeccably performed, and exactly the sort of fun you’d expect from the Pixies.

Click here to see photos of the Pixies at the Palace 

The crowd: Everybody wore glasses. It was like a really hip optometrist convention.

Overheard in the crowd: “It turns out, I'm not as familiar with the Pixies catalog as I thought.”

Random notebook dump: “Black Francis looks like L’il Tigger’s Cub Scout Den Leader.”

Notes on the opener: Indie-folk-punk-avowed mononymous buzz-magnet Mitski opened to a crowd that had already filled much of the floor. Mitski has put out four critically lauded records that showcase a dynamic vocal range and a melding of alt-rock styles that’s pretty impressive for someone born after Doolittle came out. Live, however, not enough of this came across. This is unfortunate for such a strong artist who deserves consideration—and has played sold-out shows here—in more intimate settings. Maybe it’s a side effect of opening for indie legends. If you’re opening for the Pixies, you end up sounding like the sort of band who would open for the Pixies.

Wave of Mutilation
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Gouge Away
Head Carrier
Um Chagga Lagga
Isla de Encanta
Bel Esprit
Break My Body
Brick Is Red
Tenement Song
Classic Masher
Rive Euphrates
Plaster of Paris
Nimrod's Son
Silver Snail
All the Saints
Here Comes Your Man
La La Love You
Mr. Grieves
Motorway to Roswell
Magdalena 318
Where Is My Mind
Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf)

All I Think About Now