That's the best way to describe how the Pixies operate right now. Without so much as a "good evening," the indie-rock legends—now down to three of its original members, and on its second replacement touring bassist in less than a year—stepped onstage at the Schnitz right at their scheduled start time, knocking out thunderous renditions of "Bone Machine," "Wave of Mutilation" and "U Mass" seemingly before the sold-out crowd even got out of its chairs. That's how it went for the next two hours—an unhalting deluge of 29 songs, everything you'd want to hear (minus "Debaser" and "Gigantic," the latter omitted for obvious reasons) and a few things you didn't (the torpid new catalogue additions, in particular "Bagboy" and "Blue Eyed Hexe," played back-to-back), the only pauses coming for synchronized pulls from water bottles.
It's hard to argue that this isn't the best the band has ever sounded. David Lovering, always a beastly drummer, has grown into an arena-sized monster since the group's 2004 reunion, even if he looks like a guy who'd go boating with your dad. Joey Santiago's mangled guitar solos have developed into their own distinct musical language. And Frank Black (or Black Francis, or Charles Thompson, whichever moniker you prefer) can still has the best slaughtered-pig squeal in rock.
And yet, something wasn't there.
That something—or someone, rather—was Kim Deal. Apologists have attempted to downplay her departure, but you can only grasp what she brought to the Pixies in the midst of a marathon performance like this one. It's nothing musical, either: A Perfect Circle's Paz Lenchantin filled in more than ably, on both bass and backing vocals. She is, in fact, the best all-around musician to fill that position in the lineup.
It's not Deal's chops that are missing. It's her presence. And that can't be discounted. Black has never been a particularly congenial frontman; he managed to get through the entire night without muttering even a cursory "thank you." And that's fine. No crowd needs a band to pretend to be their friend. But without Deal's brassy charisma, there's a distinct void of humanity onstage.
Lovering tried to fill the gap during his vocal turn on the goofy Doolittle cut "La La Love You," leading an audience clap-along and taking a seated bow afterward. Santiago, who spent much of the night hunched over his guitar, finally hammed it up during an extended noise solo on "Vamos," inspiring the only smile that crept across Black's face the whole show. But both moments happened toward the end of the set, and at that point, the emotional gulf surrounding much of the performance had reduced the avalanche propulsion of the show's opening moments to a dull roar.
When I suggested that losing Deal should've meant the end of the Pixies, it wasn't because I thought the band would no longer be able to competently replicate the songs everyone loves in concert. At the Schnitz, the Pixies proved the opposite. They're a well-oiled machine—with all the mechanicalness that implies.
All photos by Emma Browne.