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Live review: The Pixies get in touch with their B-sides

November 5, 2009 | 12:45 pm

The seminal band kicks off a U.S. tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of its 1989 college-rock classic 'Doolittle' at the Palladium.

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Wednesday night at the Hollywood Palladium, in the first of three concerts there, the Pixies kicked off a U.S. tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of their 1989 college-rock classic "Doolittle." So what did the band open with? A string of obscure B-sides that even bassist Kim Deal admitted she had trouble remembering.

Proudly noisy and unapologetically arty, the Pixies kept mainstream success at arm's length during their original run, which ended acrimoniously in 1993 after a stint opening arena shows for U2. Yet thanks in part to postmortem praise from the likes of Kurt Cobain (who famously called "Smells Like Teen Spirit" his attempt to replicate the Pixies' sound), the band's reputation grew over the next decade, and in 2004 members reunited to the delight of old and new fans alike.

At the Palladium, where the celeb-studded audience included Benicio Del Toro, Chloë Sevigny and that guy who played the nefarious gang boss in "The Crow," the Pixies demonstrated how little age has softened their signature idiosyncrasies: sudden dynamic shifts, unexpected Latin flourishes, frontman Black Francis' lyrical fixation on the creepy and the surreal. (Before Francis and his bandmates took the stage, they screened Luis Buñuel's 1929 short film "Un Chien Andalou," one of the singer's subjects in "Doolittle's" first track, "Debaser.")

Beyond a couple of minor vocal-rhythm alterations, the Pixies didn't really diverge from the arrangements presented on "Doolittle," which following those B-sides the band performed from beginning to end. "You can't skip 'em if you don't like any of the songs," said Deal with a laugh between "Here Comes Your Man," the album's catchiest cut, and "Dead," one of its weirdest. "You have to listen to all of 'em."

Still, if the goal at the Palladium was a faithful re-creation of a beloved 20-year-old document, the players couldn't help but give the music new muscle, a product of the considerable experience each has accumulated since the Pixies' first breakup. Working as both Black Francis and Frank Black, the band's frontman alone has released more than a dozen albums of off-kilter garage-rock.

What once sounded feral and primitive came off as crafty and assured, particularly during "Wave of Mutilation," a perfect union of melody and fuzz, and "Hey," which swung harder and more nimbly than it does on "Doolittle."

No argument with experience here; more of the countless indie bands the Pixies have influenced should consider learning how to play their instruments. Yet it wasn't always clear Wednesday if anything other than collective nostalgia was driving the Pixies. Francis especially seemed oddly detached from the proceedings, even as he roared his way through a furious take on "Tame."

Of course, scholarly detachment has more or less been Francis' default mode since he and guitarist Joey Santiago formed the band at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His version of the rock-'n'-roll frontman is as much an interrogation of that role as it is a fulfillment of it.

Whether or not that stance will provide enough fuel for a new studio album, which members of the band have mentioned recording next year, is an open question. For now, their fortysomething spirit smells fine.

--Mikael Wood

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Photo: Joey Santiago, left, and Frank Black of the Pixies. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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