The Orpheum Theater
May 3 2011
The Orpheum is a slightly bizarre place for a rock concert. One of the most upscale concert venues downtown Vancouver has to offer, behind it's rather unassuming facade hides a thoroughly modern but classically decorated opera house. Unlike other Vancouver concert hotspot, the Commodore Ballroom, the Orpheum has a seated performance hall. Though crowds frequently stand throughout the shows anyway. Nonetheless, by eliminating the press and chaos of the standing crowd and possessing superior sound quality, a show at the Orpheum allows one to appreciate the actual music far better. Even if you have to sacrifice atmosphere. Which is good because this was evening full of great music and totally devoid of atmosphere.
The cavernous and ornate performance hall was almost deserted when the sole opening act of the night took the stage. Hailing from Winnipeg, Imaginary Cities have only been a band for roughly eleven months but that hasn't stopped them from releasing a full length album, Temporary Residents, and playing twenty-two dates alongside the Pixies. A sassy mix of indie-rock and R&B, Imaginary Cities are a humble powerhouse of a band thanks in large part to lead singer Marti Sarbit. This women possesses a voice so hot it could melt steel. They played eight songs off their album and one cover: the Cake song “Mexico”. Despite the fact almost nobody had arrived early enough to catch their set, the band seemed largely unconcerned. They were clearly having tons of fun playing and gave their all to the fifty odd people in attendance. I was so impressed that I purchased their album off iTunes when I got home. Their show would probably be ten times better playing in a more intimate venue for a more receptive crowd. Mark my words, this is a band to watch out for.
By the time The Pixies did take the stage, the concert hall was packed. The techs had revealed a huge light board behind the stage during the break and just before the band took the stage it began to play clips from an old silent movie to heavy ambient music. Then with barely a word of acknowledgement the band strode on stage and powered into their set with the ominous surf-rock track “Dance The Manta Ray”. They never really let up from there, quickly hammering through not only their most famous album Doolittle, which this reunion tour is celebrating, but a whole crap load of their B-Sides as well. My personal Pixies favourite “Tame” received an especially good rendition. As did “Monkey Gone To Heaven”, which proved to be especially popular with the crowd. Very little of their catalogue was spared as the set was followed by two long encores. The band saved their most famous song, the apathetic anthem “Where Is My Mind?”, for the second of the two and then closed out with the Kim Deal lead number “Gigantic”. Musically this band has not lost it with age. In fact they are almost a little better. A little more polished. Though part of the band's appeal has always been the rougher edge so maybe that's not necessarily a good thing. I will say that Black Francis' yowling singing style sounds much better live. It has a certain gusto that the recordings don't capture. Kim Deal plays base like a champ and David Lovering seems to be having the time of his life playing with the band again. Joey Santiago was likewise on the ball. Sonically The Pixies all there.
Which is shame that they aren't in terms of atmosphere. The band made almost no effort to build a rapport with audience. I don't know, maybe it was because they are near the end of their tour. Or maybe it was because this was the first of two nights in Vancouver. Whatever the reason, they just weren't there. I've never seen a band look so impassive. Or try so hard to avoid their own stage lighting. Whenever he wasn't singing, Black Francis would step out of his light and strum in the shadows with a bored look on his face. Kim Deal spent a lot of the concert playing towards the drum kit with her back to the audience. She and Joey Santiago also spent much of the show unlit. The band played a few songs silhouetted by back light. If this was supposed to make them seem “artsy” it didn't work. I just felt disconnected. I wasn't the only one. More than a few people spent the show looking at the stage, with arms crossed, head nodding slightly. The massive light board often necessitated a complete blackout between songs and caused two delays, further interrupting the rhythm of the show. Between songs the band chatted idly on stage out range of their mikes so making little attempt to talk to the audience. Kim Deal occasionally quipped something about playing their B-Sides before backing away from the mike like she was afraid it would bite her. At the end of the set they just walked of stage after a few quick waves and a wordless bow. They didn't bother waving at the end of their first encore. Which the theatre personnel mistakenly interpreted as the end of the show and brought the houselights up. It wasn't over but the lights never fully went down so they ended up playing their most atmospheric song “Where is my mind?” with the lights on. Which they weren't supposed to be. The Pixies even asked the theatre staff to lower the lights back down before they played it. The Pixies were a good listen to be sure but I have felt more emotion at a crappy university bar concert. That is kind of disappointing considering the band's iconic status.