The Pixies at The Catalyst, by Joshua Huver
The Pixies (photo: Joshua Huver)

On Tuesday, October 25 one of the most influential bands in contemporary rock and roll kicked off a four-show run of California ‘warm-up’ dates in the beach town of Santa Cruz.

The Pixies choosing to play The Catalyst in Santa Cruz may seem unusual, but the venue often serves as a quick stop for larger touring acts traveling between Northern and Southern California, and with the show happening less than two weeks from its announcement, it’s clear that The Pixies wanted to keep it low-key for the warm-up dates.

Smaller, intimate crowds of people that know they’re lucky to be in attendance is the aura they went for, and they got it. While The Pixies never received the all-out stardom of Nirvana, there is no question that they wrote the cheat codes for the generations of rock and rollers that came after. Not everyone bought into The Pixies before their hiatus, but many that did started a band of their own.

The Pixies at The Catalyst, by Joshua Huver

On Tuesday, downtown Santa Cruz was teeming with the usual suspects, but instead of abiding by a generation gap, there were couples pushing 50 lining up next to kids that looked like the might have just graduated high school. The show was 21 and up, so (hopefully) there were no children present — but the younger crowd did show up, affirming the band’s timelessness.

Oakland post-rock quartet Waterstrider was picked to open all four of the warm-up dates in California. They started a little late, but they had complete control of the mood from their first song, opening the show slowly and delicately before delving into noise-driven cacophonies.

Musically, Waterstrider is an obvious product of what the Pixies have sown, resembling the epic sounds of Explosions In The Sky. I wish I was more familiar with their songs, but I thoroughly enjoyed every second that I saw. They got the crowd moving early and were a perfect precursor to the Pixies 28-song set list.

Waterstrider at The Catalyst, by Joshua Huver

Black Francis, the visionary behind the microphone, took the stage just after 9:15 with his bandmates Joey Santiago on lead guitar, David Lovering manning the drums, and latest addition Paz Lenchantin in place of the Kims (Deal and Shattuck) on bass.

They wasted no time in delivering a stripped-down assault of raw, emotional, loud-quiet-loud rock beginning with “Gouge Away” from the 1989 album Doolittle. They hurried into “Um Chagga Lagga,” the first single off their most recent release, Head Carrier, and then back in time to Surfer Rosa‘s “Something Against You,” then “I’ve Been Tired” from the 1987 album Come On Pilgrim.

One of the beautiful things about The Pixies is that sometimes they write a set list, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they play whatever they want when they want it. There was no officially written set list for Tuesday’s tour opener — they winged it in true warm-up, testing-the-waters fashion, a feeling of ‘Let’s see what we can do, yeah?’

Delay-riddled layers of Santiago’s guitar opened most tracks, including the EP2 track “Magdalena” from their 2014 reunion effort. A slow, heavy and dangerous behemoth of a song led into a more bluesy rock and roll vibe with “Brick Is Red” from Surfer Rosa. This lead into the first single from Doolittle, “Monkey Gone To Heaven.” Check it out below:

They continued sporadically bouncing between eras and the various nuances of tone and squealing guitar that make The Pixies so addictive. One of those stand out tracks was “Hey!” off of Doolittle, a classic, slinking track. They moved into some poppy (for The Pixies, that is) tunes before really turning on the overdrive and getting the mosh pit rolling at high capacity. Emotions were high throughout the crowd, as evidenced by more than one fist fight broken up by security.

The Pixies at The Catalyst, by Joshua Huver

Underneath the waves of noise, The Pixies have a very surf-oriented melodic structure throughout their songs, despite forming on the East Coast. The unavoidable swing of each song’s groove is sometimes the only thing that cuts through everything, ensuring you can at least still move along in reckless, if slightly off-beat, abandon if you’re not sure what is going on.

A false start before “Velouria” was one of only a few kinks that they were working out before heading to Europe, but anything that could constitute a technical ‘screw-up’ was not only vastly overlooked (and honestly a little expected), but helped affirm the band’s position as no bullshit rock and rollers.

The nearly two-hour set concluded with a trio of Doolittle tunes and no encore. Led by the indisputable champion and pioneer of the loud-quiet-loud formula, “Where Is My Mind,” the band moved into “La La Love You” and ended with “Into The White.”

The Pixies at The Catalyst, by Joshua Huver

The Pixies final California warm-up date is tonight at The Ventura Theater just south of Santa Barbara, and then they head to Europe for a three week tour that will take them through Austria, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, France, Germany and nine shows throughout the United Kingdom between November 15 and December 8 with support from British post-punk band FEWS.