A hit-or-miss live act back in their original 1987-1993 heyday, the Pixies have been a lot more reliable in recent years despite losing irreplaceable bassist/co-vocalist Kim Deal. Tuesday's rapidly paced, 1¾-hour performance at the Palace Theatre -- the first of two nights, continuing with tonight's sold-out gig -- was the Boston alt-rock legends’ sturdiest local showing yet of the modern era, and the most exciting since their first-ever reunion at the Fine Line in 2004.
The first 40 minutes or so of the concert steamrolled breathlessly and blissfully. The opening classic “Wave of Mutilation” rippled right into “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” quickly followed by a simmering version of “Gouge Away,” whose slowed-down tempo made it sound all the heavier and more wicked. That breakneck tempo continued through a string of new tunes, including the wonderfully spazzy “Um Chagga Lagga” and the title track from last year’s underrated album “Head Carrier.”
Frontman Black Francis (née Frank Blank, née Charles Thompson) didn’t say a word to the crowd as the band raged away, his incomparable screams and howls sounding as powerful as ever. Unlike back in the day, his aloofness seemed more about being dialed in than pissed off as he challenged himself and his band in several of the more varied, less by-the-numbers newer tunes.
“Classic Masher” proved to be one of Francis’s most overtly poppy tunes to date, with a Guided by Voices-like energy. “Plaster of Paris” came off with a playful and surprisingly convincing country twang. Most fun of all, “Bel Esprit” utilized new bassist Paz Lenchantin for a frisky boy/girl duet not unlike a collaboration by the Pixies’ fellow late-‘80s Boston rockers Juliana Hatfield and Evan Dando.
In the unenviable role of trying to fill Deal’s shoes, Lenchantin more than held her own. The seasoned bassist – who’s played with A Perfect Circle and Billy Corgan’s Zwan – kept up with all the rhythmic twists and turns alongside drummer David Lowering. She also richly filled in the harmonies for familiar oldies “Caribou” and “Here Comes Your Man” (the latter of which the band botched at first and had to start over, forcing Francis to break from character and laugh it off).
Along with the still-masterfully gory guitarist Joey Santiago, Francis & Co. avoided playing a greatest-hits set when it came to the older material. They dug deep into their earliest releases “Surfer Rosa” and “Come on, Pilgrim,” dusting off “Cactus,” “Break My Body,” “Vamos” and “Brick Is Red.” They also threw in their cover of “Winterlong” from the screaming-to-be-reissued 1989 benefit album “The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young.”
Unfortunately, all those nuggets meant some other old favorites had to be cut, even with an impressive 33-song set list. Only “Subbacultcha” and “Motorway to Roswell” were offered off 1991’s “Trompe Le Monde,” and other favorites such as “Bone Machine,” “Dig for Fire” and “Tame” were missing. The set lists on this tour have varied greatly from night to night, though. All the more reason to be grateful they’re in town for a twofer.
See the full set list from Tuesday's show at Setlist.fm.