Black Francis’s persona is split in a way that doesn’t sit well with me. On one hand, he seems like a really nice guy. He’s funny, he tells stories, he cracks jokes—he’s very pleasant. On the other hand, his songwriting and singing and screaming are satanic. They are of Satan. I have never understood how that music comes out of that man, and I have wandered down some dark roads in contemplation. It’s a mind fuck of the highest order. Naturally, I’m a huge fan.
According to the flyer at the Great American Music Hall, tonight, Black Francis is playing a solo acoustic show. The flyer is wrong. Mr. Francis is plugged in, and he has not come alone. On antique pump organ and bass guitar is long time collaborator Eric Drew Feldman. And on the cocktail drums is a drummer whose name I can’t hear. Speak up, Black. Can I call you Black?
Black kicks off with “The Black Rider,” his Tom Waits cover. Save for the organ and some minimal guitar, the song is all vocals. It sets the tone for the show to come: mellow and intimate. The set consists of revamped versions of his more famous songs. Some changes are significant. “Cactus” is dirtier and sexier. “Nimrod’s Son” is half as fast and with a swagger. “I Heard Ramona Sing” is almost a country song. “Planet of Sound” has become a series of bizarre repeating builds (“and on the planet of glass / and on the planet of glass / and on the planet of glass” etc.). But all have been retooled in a similar way—all are quieter, more ethereal.
Anyone who saw the Pixies last year can attest that Black brought fire to the stage. It was amazing, and proof that he still has it when he wants it. But tonight the vibe is caged and controlled. He’s a different beast, foraging another direction, stripping things down. I can’t shake the feeling that we’re not hearing Black Francis, singer of the Pixies, but rather Black Francis, solo artist covering the Pixies. I’m pretty sure this is intentional. Black draws material from his first two solo albums, from the Frank Black and Frank Black and The Catholics albums, and from his most recent effort, NonStopErotik. To someone like myself who is a little too familiar with his catalog, it’s a well-balanced set. In fact, the Pixies songs almost feel like bones he’s tossing to the casual fans.
He closes the show with a double punch: a haunting organ and vocal version of “Where Is My Mind,” and “You Can’t Break A Heart And Have It,” a loud, rocking closer. The former is one of the best takes on the song I’ve heard, and the latter is the closest Black comes all night to letting loose his scream. I leave the show satiated. For the moment, I’ve let my bedazzlement with the singer’s dual nature fade to alluring paradox. Or I should say, fade to black.
– Written by Erik Thybony & Photographs by Victoria Smith