By Mark Guarino
The Pixies playing five nights to about 22,500 people would have been unheard of a decade or so ago, yet in Chicago this week they are doing just that.
At the Aragon Saturday, the band arrived for the first of their sold-out, five-night stand in a reunion tour that lasted all year with no hint of slowing. In their prime, between 1986 and 1992, the band was more popular overseas for their hallucinatory mix of cosmic lyrics, pop sweetness, and twisted punk backbone. In the U.S., they remained mostly an underground favorite and the band namechecked by Kurt Cobain as a primary influence on Nirvana.
The Pixies grew in mythic proportions since their demise and now, as all four members enter middle age, they are playing to their biggest crowds yet and receiving more media attention than ever.
Other than the fog machine and slickly coordinated lights, not much signaled the band’s recent elevated stature. In his sweater vest and oxford shirt, singer-guitarist Frank Black looked more like he was heading to a biology club meeting than playing a rock show, but when he opened his mouth to unleash one of many of his trademark yowls, he sounded like an invigorated rock elder statesman who remained fiercely uncompromised.
In their 90-minute show, the band played a 28-song set that built slowly, went on long, extended jaunts and ended with a quick dose of sunshine pop. As evidence their song catalog has been obsessed over since 1992, the crowd, thirty- forty-year-olds mixing with teens and twentysomethings, showered each obscurity with cheering reverence, pretty strange but also an affirmation that music neglected in its day can eventually gets its due.
So many of the songs the Pixies played Saturday became a clash of opposites. “Where Is My Mind?,” one of their most psychedelic, rode a rootsy groove with Black’s anguished singing paired against the soothing harmonizing of his vocal counterpart, bassist Kim Deal.
Early on, the band blurred together short, two-minute songs (“In Heaven,” “Wave of Mutilation”), then leapt into longer and faster songs (“No. 13 Baby,” “U-Mass,” “Tame”) that revealed why their idiosyncrasies became so influential in helping future rock bands break the mold of commercial expectation. The longer songs had a dizzying effect due to the strutting backbeat of Deal’s bass, the spacious but heavy drumming of David Lovering, the feedback-draped riffs of guitarist Joey Santiago and Black’s banshee cries. They played better than they ever did in their heyday and the mixture, at its peak, felt like an exposed nerve.
The band didn’t take an encore, but instead stood onstage to shake hands and say hello. Afterwards, they played two more songs — the jangle pop “Here Comes Your Man” and the extended “Vamos,” where Santiago returned his guitar to its holder and sawed it with a drumstick. It was all goofy extravagance by a band that enjoyed little of it in their past.