There’s an oft-repeated origin story about Black Francis’ trademark scream that has now become as much a part of the man’s mythology as anything else. Before the Pixies started up, when he was still Charles Thompson from Massachusetts, Francis worked for a Thai florist who loved the Beatles. One day, Francis was singing along to “Oh! Darling” and the florist said these fateful words: “No, no, scream it like you hate the bitch!” That developed into a signature loud-quiet-loud songwriting style — soft verses, shouted choruses — and the rest, to be blunt, is literally the story of modern alternative music.
It was no surprise that one of the many highpoints of Black Francis’ intimate show at the Haunt Saturday night, along with his friend and sometime collaborator Reid Paley, was a scream (or rather, several). Wrapping up their respective sets with a few songs as a duo, Francis and Paley descended into a screaming match onstage, trading off full-throated throttles. Paley has a strong voice and a glaringly loud sound, but there was no contest: Nobody can scream like Black Francis. His soul shattering bellows are at once life affirming and terrifying, adding power to some of the most innovative and brilliant music produced in the last 50 years.
Although best known as the frontman for the Pixies, the college rock band that literally wrote the songbook for the past two decades of alternative music, Francis has built an extensive solo career. Rechristening himself Frank Black after the Pixies broke up in 1993, he released albums both as a solo artist and as the bandleader for the Catholics. While the Pixies got back together in 2004, 2007 saw a return to the Black Francis moniker for his solo work. Over the past few years, Francis has also released a number of collaborations with his wife Violet Clark as Grand Duchy and most recently with Paley as Paley & Francis.
Saturday night’s show demonstrated the diversity of music that Francis has produced over the past 20-plus years. Songs recorded decades apart by various groups of musicians were reborn on stage, side-by-side, as Francis brought everything to life as one man with a guitar and a microphone. At times, the nakedness of the songs was evident — particularly on Frank Black and the Catholics’ standout “Robert Onion,” which was missing backing keyboards in a bad way.
However, this was a small price to pay to hear overall exceptional renditions of songs from every stage of Francis’ storied career. From the straightforward rock of the Catholics’ “Bullet,” which opened the show, to early Frank Black tracks like the alternative rock template “(I Want To Live On An) Abstract Plain” and later countrified tunes like “I Burn Today,” off of Nashville-recorded Honeycomb, Francis repeatedly demonstrated his comfort in shifting styles. His voice, often underrated, soars into higher registers and sometimes falsetto and stayed sturdy throughout his set. His voice was clearly the focal point of his sound and was complimented perfectly by his simple and consistent guitar playing.
Those expecting a Pixies show would have been sorely disappointed (although judging from audience-shouted requests they were few and far between). Francis played a handful of songs from the band that launched him to fame, all notably from their early phase (one of the standouts, “Subbacultcha,” was released on the Pixies’ final album, Trompe Le Monde, but written years before). The two songs not from the early years of the band were some of the biggest crowd pleasers of the night: “Where is My Mind?” from Surfer Rosa and “Wave of Mutilation” off of Doolittle.
For longtime fans, which many in the sold-out crowd seemed to be, a Black Francis show at a small venue like the Haunt is a must-see experience. The night was an amazing opportunity to reflect on Francis’ unbelievable output. Get excited for whatever comes next.
A full interview with Black Francis to appear in the Arts and Entertainment section on Wednesday.