While the band that made him famous, The Pixies, are content to play the same set each night on their various reunion tours, a Black Francis solo show is an exercise in unpredictability. And that's a good thing.
The surprises started right away Friday night at The State Room, when instead of a "solo, acoustic" show that his publicists had advertised, the enigmatic frontman arrived with an electric guitar and a friend to play some keyboards and bass guitar. Again, the switch was a good thing, allowing Black Francis to flesh out the radically reworked songs delivered over the course of nearly two hours.
He started the show with a quick run-through of a few Pixies songs, and while he assured the adoring crowd on hand to worship at his alt-rock altar that he wasn't doing that just to get the Pixies tunes out of the way quickly, that clearly was what he was doing. As he joked, "only my membership in the indie-rock club keeps me from doing a medley of these songs," (or something along those lines).
Even with Black Francis' preemptive dismissal, the Pixies tunes were thrilling to hear, from the show-opening "The Holiday Song" from the band's Come On Pilgrim to the dramatically rearranged "Velouria" to the long-time fave and instant singalong "Where Is My Mind?" "Mr. Grieves" and "Caribou" were also part of the opening salvo of Pixies tunes.
Black Francis marked the shift into his solo catalog with a dramatic (and clearly off-putting to some) rendition of Tom Waits' "Black Rider." From that point on through about two dozen songs, he touched on virtually every album he's released since the Pixies' initial split in 1993, including his solo albums, collaborations with other artists and his albums leading Frank Black and the Catholics.
"Los Angeles" thrilled many of the long-time fans on hand, as did "Superabound" and "(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plane." The arrangements were, generally speaking, far more bare-bones than the songs' recorded versions, but Black Francis made up for the lack of drums and slick production with that unmistakable caterwaul of a voice. It's an instrument that can veer from deep, sonorous performances to high-pitched squeals and shrieks, and it was in fine form Saturday. Likewise, his guitar-playing was easier to focus on in such intimate environs, and he shifted from delicate picking to aggressive riffing through the night.
Among the other highlights Friday were "I Heard Ramona Sing," his tribute to The Ramones, "Ten Percenter," "I'll Be Blue" and the late-set addition of another Pixies fave, "Nimrod's Son."
In the end, the unusual arrangements didn't work for everybody who showed up; there was a noticeable flow of people exiting before the show's end who weren't quite prepared for Black Francis' dive deep into his solo catalog. But for those who've spent the past quarter-century as hardcore fans of his work--whether solo or with the Pixies--seeing him in a small venue, doing exactly what he wanted to be doing instead of flogging the old hits, it was a real treat.