You know you’ve made it as a truly legendary figure when you provide, essentially, your own support act for the evening. So it is with Frank Black who, looking like a cross between a post-punk Blues Brother and a more sinister Kingpin in black suit, shaved head and dark glasses, graces us mere mortals with his presence in West London this fine evening.
Taking The Pixies’ trademark loud/quiet/loud/quiet technique to new extremes, Black begins the evening with 40 minutes of pared down Beyond Nashville-esque musical whismy, alone on the stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar to help him out, before bringing in the band to make our ears bleed for the best part of an hour and a half.
This is not only a testament to his stature in the rock hall of fame, but also a nod to his versatility – fragile acoustic riffs one minute, ear-splitting punk noisescapes the next, and every moment of it brilliant. The music spans the entirety of his career, from The Pixies’ Sufa Rosa, through albums he has made with The Catholics and solo, to at least one song from his next album, Bluefinger, not due out until September.
While he’s on his own, but dominating the stage nonetheless, we’re treated to Headache, Sir Rockaby, Horrible Day and The Ramones’ tribute I Heard Romana Sing, his voice both gentle and brutal, laying here more than anywhere the template from which Grunge would be forged. It’s also in this first session that he nods his head to The Pixies for the only time tonight, as Cactus’s nonsensical lyrics echo from the stage.
Then it’s time to introduce the band, and the amps are on overtime as he burns through fast, furious and very, very noisy versions of songs taken from across the last 15 years, including Ten Percenter, Dead Man’s Curve and California Bound. God help you if the spoken word version of Six Sixty Six isn’t the scariest thing you hear all year, while Tight Black Rubber’s incorporation of lines from Mary Had A Little Lamb is similarly spine-chilling.
Manitoba’s screamed refrain – “I have seen the face of God and I am not afraid” – has never sounded better, with Frank coming across as the demented Bible-basher we know still lurks inside him, albeit with rock and roll on his side. Even the dreaded one off the new album’, Threshold Apprehension, sounds already familiar and welcomed, proving that he has lost none of his relevence or fire.
With so much of his own great material to choose from, there is little need to revert to cover versions but, when he does, you can guarantee it’s so that he can spit them out, punked up and improved, with a dark heart you never dreamed they had: and this is the treatment afforded to Fatboy Slim’s Funk Soul Brother, only just recognizable beneath Black’s reworking.
The man is a legend. He created one of the seminal bands of the late 1980s/early 1990s, influenced the decade’s most important youth culture movement, and went on to create a body of work that has been every bit as good since and promises to remain so into the future. Thank god Halley’s Comet wasn’t that interesting.