Review: Pixies prove potent and primal in set packed with fire and fury at Auckland Town Hall

REVIEW: It took 90 minutes for Black Francis, lead singer of Pixies, to acknowledge the Auckland audience who had traipsed through one of the muggiest nights of the year to see him and his surf-rock troubadours.

Unfortunately, it was in the form of a farewell wave and smile as the group take a curtain call and bow at the end of the gig at Auckland's Town Hall - one that leaves the fans satiated, but many disappointed, desperate for more.

But then in their entire history Pixies have never been known for their on-stage banter.

The closest the Auckland crowd gets is a series of manic grins and occasional waves from bassist Paz Lenchantin during various songs and powerhouse guitarist Joey Santiago doffing his cap early on.

There's a difference between showmanship and craft, and in truth, in the 33 years since this reviewer first had his mind blown by their live performance at a muddy Midlands venue in the UK where the floor was sticky with beer, the band's never changed their ways. It's always been about the wall of sound, the shredding of the guitar mixed with obtuse lyrics and the occasionally chilled out surf-grunge vibe of their music.

The Boston foursome led the alternative music scene in the late '80s, with lyrics dealing with incest and thwarted religion sitting alongside sci-fi obsessions. Influencing the likes of Nirvana, the band's refusal to play the game endeared them to millions of fans, and their indie anthems secured their legacy.

Back in New Zealand after COVID-19 nearly scuppered their 2020 experience, they've lost none of their fire - and seemed more determined to make up for years of lost gigs.

Opening with an extended lead into 1989's 'Gouge Away', Francis, drummer David Lovering, Santiago and bassist Lenchantin are assured from the start. The crowd consisted of both older fans and people who clearly wouldn't have been alive when Doolittle was released.

However, judging by the guy bizarrely throwing shapes up in the rafters of the Town Hall when Surfer Rosa cut 'Break My Body' played, the frenzied pogoing during 'Gigantic' and the teen girls screaming along with Francis' primal roar during 'Monkey Gone To Heaven', there was universal unity in what Pixies were selling.

Throwing in hits from Come on Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, the band had an excessive back catalogue to dig deep into - and in truth, 90 minutes felt a lot longer than it was. That's not a criticism - more due to the fact Pixies' songs are little more than 3 minutes apiece. Mixing in the usual combination of Francis' banshee-like wailing, Santiago's ferocious guitar, Lovering's powerhouse drumming  and harmonies in the least expected of places, they all provided short punky bursts of bluster on vinyl.

Live, the songs have lost none of the punch - even if it appears in parts like Francis was holding back on some of the snarling vocals, or perhaps unable to reach some of the primal edges he once ferociously roared.

Gold and blue lighting bathed the stage during 'Monkey Gone To Heaven', turning to a vicious red when Francis' vocals reached the iconic "Then the Devil is 6" refrain. Bossanova's 'Blown Away' saw the band lit in blue, and yellow spotlights danced as 'Hey' was tossed into the crowd.

While Pixies have been playing these songs since 1986, they've lost none of the frivolity of their experimental furiousness, even if the structure's been tinkered with.

Joey Santiago, Black Francis, David Lovering and Paz Lenchantin of Pixies onstage
Joey Santiago, Black Francis, David Lovering and Paz Lenchantin of Pixies provided a wall of sound at Auckland Town Hall. Photo credit: Getty Images

Turning Surfer Rosa's anthem 'Nimrod's Son' into a softer version of its original scabrous self is a masterstroke, moving the song into almost operatic territory as Francis slows down the words once previously dispatched with an almost vicious edge.

It's in the band's earlier music that the crowd comes to life though, and nostalgia proved to be the winner on the night. 

While cuts from 2022's Doggerel showcase a more mature sound post their reformation, combined with the band's more laid-back lyrical and melody-driven storytelling, 'Vault of Heaven', 'There's a Moon On' and 'The Lord Has Come Back Today' all left the crowd somewhat restless and itching for more Doolittle heyday.

And Pixies were keen to reciprocate the lust for the likes of 'Debaser', 'Here Comes Your Man', 'Gigantic' (complete with Lenchantin's lead), 'Dead' and a bustling version of 'Planet of Sound' tossed out into the audience like musical scraps for a frenzied feeding.

Black Francis of Pixies in front of microphone
Black Francis' guttural screams made a large part of the Pixies' appeal. Photo credit: Getty Images

Dealing out two versions of 'Wave of Mutilation' in different parts of the set, Pixies' loud-quiet-loud style of songs all led up to a blistering version of 'Where Is My Mind', with Francis stepping back during the chorus to let the audience take on the vocals. Even the audience members who'd got out their lighters during the song's refrain were left alone by security to simply enjoy the communal moment.

With no two sets the same, the second night at Auckland - and then Christchurch - will be an entirely different musical experience. They know exactly what they're doing and how to gear up the audience and bring them along for the journey.

What remains constant about the Pixies' concert experience is their awe-inducing capacity and energy. For a band that blazed so brightly back in the late '80s and '90s, they've lost none of their fire as a live act; one that not even the Auckland drizzle could dampen as the evening came to a close.