Armed with his Fender Telecaster guitar, his distinctive voice and his large cache of songs, indie rock icon Black Francis mixed his solo work together with Pixies classics for a nearly two-hour performance at the Old Rock House on one of the hottest days in St. Louis this year.
The majority of the indie rock crowd comprised of mostly 25-40 year olds arrived early preferring to stay inside rather than sweating it out to lounge on the patio. In fact, the patio stayed empty most of the night as temperatures were still in the high 80s or low 90s after the sun went down. Drinking plenty of fluids (water supplied by the club and beer of course), the audience stayed the coolest when they moved apart from each other near the front of the venue. Conditions were especially warm on the lower floor near the stage where most of the audience gathered tightly. The air conditioning inside the building labored to keep the space cool after the exterior brick and stone work soaked up the heat all day even though the venue was half full at most.
The evening opened with a truncated version local act, This City Of Takers, featuring just Brandon Lee on vocals and guitar with David Mahew on guitar for this performance. Playing together a couple of years around town and garnering some more wide-ranging interest, this was a highlighted opening slot that didn't capture the full essence of the band's sound. The duo played a 40 plus minute set that seemed almost quiet in the venue. Without the melodic bass lines and drums, the tunes lacked some punch and post rock ferocity. Nevertheless, the overall duo format lined up nicely with the vibe of the evening. I would prefer to see the full band version to clearly draw my opinions.
A man who seems to need the stimulation of constant work, Black Francis keeps himself very busy. Besides mastering the Frank Black and the Catholics material for a forthcoming compilation and recording an album with Reid Paley set for an album release later this year, that other project associated with the songwriter may start work on an album soon while still finding time to tour. Five years after the release of the documentary LoudQuietLoud: a film about the Pixies chronicling the reformation of the band and subsequent tour, Francis and his band mates haven't stopped. Officially moving from his solo moniker Frank Black to his Pixies dom de plume, Black Francis, in 2007 seems to appreciate his original alias as an older, experienced artist.
Dressed in a black long-sleeved shirt with sleeves rolled, glasses, and his trademark shaved head, Francis casually took the stage about five minutes after 9 p.m. He took a few minutes to ready his gear and got down to business. Presenting a stripped-down show, Francis played his Telecaster guitar through a Vox AC30 and vintage silverface Fender Deluxe Reverb set up as Eric Drew Feldman accompanied Francis on a Fender bass and an electronic Korg keyboard and vintage Wurlitzer organ. Feldman, a veteran of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, produced the initial solo offerings from the artist in the early '90s having met Francis during the death knell of the Pixies 20 years ago.
Opening the show with "The Black Rider," Francis crooned this perfect Tom Waits cover for the artist sans the original's sound effects while Feldman accompanied on organ. An exciting start stirring the possibility that this could be a special evening.
Getting his biggest solo song out-of-the-way early, Francis presented a slow version of "Los Angeles" a stark departure from the sonic boom of the original track. Unfortunately, the song featured some super-fans down front singing off-key hampering the experience of this arrangement of the track. In his typical non-confrontational way, Francis chose not to address this group hindering the performance until three-quarters of the way into the show effectively telling them a little too late to "Shhhhh."
Francis made it evident early on that he planned to work without a set list and after a slow version of Pixies classic "Nimrod's Son" he asked Feldman if there were any songs he wanted to play. Without much of a response the evening moved on. Before "Two Reelers" Francis threw a curve ball to Feldman telling his fellow musician about the next song cryptically, "You produced it. Some where in your muscle memory you know it, but I'm not gonna tell you what it is." In a professional manner, Feldman didn't miss a beat moving right along.
Moving the set list back to his original solo albums, the self-titled Frank Black, Francis delighted the older parts of the crowd playing strong versions of "I Heard Ramona Sing" and "Ten Percenter." Before the former he recalled playing at Mississippi Nights opening for the Ramones on the Acid Eaters tour and how excited Joey Ramone was that Francis had written a song in honor of the famous punk band. From there Francis continued to meander through his extensive catalog.
While Francis continued to keep the attention drawn on him throughout the evening the performance moved slowly. The lack of a set list arrangement started the show off strongly, became murky toward the middle and seemed to fizzle out completely by the end of the performance as Francis either succumbed to the heat or his own internal sleep schedule. Without the sonic aspects of the songs, Francis relied heavily on his songwriting to carry the performance and some songs hold up better than others in this format for the prolific songwriter. Those original arrangements hold up so well they allow the audience to fill in what's left blank that evening in their head.
For instance, last night's version of "Planet of Sound" came off well and should have ended the show, but Francis instead chose "I'll Be Blue" and ended anti-climatically. Giving no encore, Francis motioned the soundboard the signal for 'cut' as the lights went up and house music started up marking the end to the show. Francis went into roadie mode . Francis and Feldman packed up their own stuff, signed some autographs and took pictures with fans and got back on the road nice recreation vehicle/bus. Just another day at the office.
Black Francis Set list - Old Rock House - St. Louis, MO - 7/19/11
The Black Rider (Tom Waits)
Los Angeles (slow)
Song Of The Shrimp (R. Bennett/Sid Tepper)
Nimrod's Son (slow) (Pixies)
All Around The World
I Heard Ramona Sing
That Burnt Out Rock 'n Roll (Gary Green)
She Took All The Money
Where Is My Mind (Pixies)
I Burn Today
(I Want to Live on An) Abstract Plain
Dead Man's Curve
Planet of Sound (Pixies)
I'll Be Blue