I appropriated this image of Charles Thompson in Dublin from Diary of and Up and Coming Sociopath.
My town had a visitation last night from someone who, until recently, was thought to be long dead: Black Francis, rock star.
The circumstances of this happening were less than auspicious. It took place in a little hole-in-the-wall Oakland nightclub (the Uptown), on a weeknight, after all present had had their vitality drained by two underwhelming opening acts and long stretches of sweaty boredom in between. Some members of my party didn’t even stick around to see the headliner, and I can’t say as I blame them. I was questioning my own sanity when midnight came and went and there was still no sign of His Blackness. The sound check was dragging on interminably; a cadre of hipsters stood around the drum kit gesturing and nodding glumly, like doctors agreeing on a terminal diagnosis.
Finally, though, one of them gave a signal that looked to mean “Fuck it, let’s go ahead anyway.” The house music went down and there he was: Our Hero, the stocky, balding fat man in a black shirt and black shades, faithful bass player and drummer at his side. There was a moment of awkwardness as the band tried to settle in, some feedback and rattling noises, and I thought we might be in for a bumpy ride. I was picturing Francis playing half a song, declaring this place unfit for performance, throwing down his guitar and storming off, leaving us to try to collect a refund from the hapless promoters.
But then they kicked into “Your Mouth into Mine,” and within a couple bars you knew you were in the presence of Professional Rock Musicians. The doubts and fears disappeared, the extraneous sounds were forgotten, overwhelmed by the sheer force of what was being produced by the three men onstage. I was reminded of one of my favorite things about live rock’n’roll: the way the feedback from the guitar and bass rattles the cymbals, as if the instruments were playing each other.
The second song was “Threshold Apprehension,” one of the standouts from the 2007 release Bluefinger. This, I remember, was the song that served notice that Black Francis was back. He had been unseen and presumed dead since the Pixies broke up in 1993. The guy who took his place, Frank Black, produced a series of albums that started out fantastic but over the years became less and less vital. I pretty much gave up on him after 2002’s Black Letter Days; he still wrote the occasional great song, but produced way too much music with way too little quality control.
When the Pixies reunited for a profitable reunion tour in 2004-05, he became Black Francis again, and apparently remembered that being a rock star was fun. He stuck with the name for Bluefinger, which not coincidentally contained the most Pixies-esque music he’d recorded in years, angular rockers full of odd twists and turns that sounded wrong on first listening, but after a few repetitions revealed themselves to be beautifully right. When he uncorked his trademark howl on “Threshold Apprehension,” the hearts of Pixies fans everywhere were gladdened.
Those that were listening, anyway. BF’s audience has dwindled a bit since he used to play the Warfield, and there was plenty of elbow room even in the narrow confines of the Uptown. The mosh pit that used to be hundreds strong is now reduced to a few hardy souls. But still, there was a decent smattering of people in the crowd who knew the words and sang along, and that was somewhat heartening. The songs—almost all of them taken from Bluefinger and its follow-up, Svn Fngrs—sounded great in a live setting: noisy, droning, and propulsive but still melodic. But that didn’t stop my old knees and back from complaining, so I did something that woud have been unthinkable in the old days: Left before the encores. If there were any.
But let it be known, let it be told: Black is back. If he comes to your town — especially on a weekend — take your medicine and go check him out.