Seeing a genuine genius ply his craft is a rare opportunity, but there was a definite sense of foreboding about Charles Thomspon’s October 13 show at the SoHo in Santa Barbara. Thompson, recording again as Black Francis after many years under the Frank Black moniker, was quoted in the local paper saying that he wants “to be playing in theaters, not playing in little clubs. I have a strong preference to be playing in architecture that’s designed for performance as opposed to architecture that’s designed for the consuming of alcohol and dispelling of urine.”
Musical standards aside, a fair amount of people forked over the twenty dollars to see Black Francis. Awestruck acolytes gingerly approached the stage to snap photographs of his guitar. Guys given the night off from family obligations drank expensive beer and talked about catching the Pixies back in the day. College kids drawn in through the legacy of St. Kurt looked self-consciously at one another, wondering how somebody with this many old fans could possibly be cool. It’s not Francis’s fault that he’s still best remembered for a band that released its last original music fifteen years ago; the Pixies were special enough that people are, all these years later, willing to indulge the man as he searches relentlessly for the artistic identity that will fulfill him.
Thompson’s latest incarnation is that of musical curator and, if he is to be believed, opera composer. Bluefinger — which when praised, was praised for sounding like a Pixies album — is built around the life and work of Dutch artist and musician Herman Brood. The songs range from the more melodic sound that he’s been experimenting with recently to the patented “loud quiet loud” that many of his fans have been missing for years. And while Bluefinger (released in September via Cooking Vinyl) indicates that Thompson still knows his way around a rock melody, none of the songs make the same visceral connection as his work with the Pixies does.
The same can be said for the set at the SoHo. Thompson was shorthanded; before playing “Angels Come to Comfort You,” he observed that his wife, Violet Clark, had been a large presence on Bluefinger and the tour but had to bow out due to her pregnancy. Though the effect of her presence on the standoffish Thompson would have been interesting to witness, the trio — Thompson on guitar, Dan Schmid on bass, and Jason Carter on drums — was plenty loud enough to rock the venue. They ripped though Bluefinger, taking time between tracks for Thompson to offer explanations of the songs.
Thompson never wavered throughout the set. Though there was a smattering of fans calling out the names of Pixies songs, he soldiered on with the new material. The crowd reacted favorably, but “Motorway to Roswell” and “Break My Body,” the two Pixies songs he played after warning the crowd that there would not be an encore, received by far the biggest response of the night. He closed the show with the relatively unfamiliar “Dead Man’s Curve” from the Christmass album (released in February under the Frank Black name). The audience, still infused with energy from the Pixies numbers, kept dancing but looked shell-shocked when the houselights went up with the song’s final notes still echoing in the room.
Leaving the show, it was apparent how Thompson sees playing a small venue full of people who liked him better fifteen years ago as kind of a letdown. To think that all he would really have to do is admit that he’s kind of hard to work with, expect the same from Kim Deal, and then get the other two back together. He could then be artistically fulfilled and earn exponentially more money by playing larger venues. At this point, though, the argument hits an endless loop: Either Thompson is a true genius following his muse or he’s just one more person shooting himself in the foot. Judging by his show at the SoHo, the argument will continue. Thompson played an excellent show, but it wasn’t necessarily the one he or his fans wanted.