If you know your alt-rock, Frank Black is a legend. Pixies were arguably one of the most important bands of recent times, and it is generally accepted that they were a major influence on the two key bands of the nineties – Radiohead and Nirvana. In order to get some idea of the excitement still felt by Black’s biggest fans, all you have to do is imagine how Nirvana fans would feel if they were able to see Kurt Cobain.
It is true that Frank Black and The Catholics have not yet generated a great deal of commercial or critical acclaim, but it is also true that they know exactly how to make great music, and, more to the point, they have at their helm one of the all-time greats of songwriting.
The Astoria gradually fills with people of all ages. It doesn’t matter if they followed Frank after his Pixies days or perhaps started with more recent material and worked their way back. What is important is that they are here, ready and waiting for what promises to be a stellar gig. It’s the last UK date on the Catholics’ European tour and the tickets have been sold out for a long time. New British rock band Serafin start up their set as the people continue to pour in, and, unsurprisingly, are rather good. It is clear that the band appreciate the opportunity and that the crowd appreciate their effort.
Frank, however, is the man we came to see. At around nine o’clock he and the Catholics make their way to the stage to a thunderous reception. From the relative youngsters to the veterans of Surfer Rosa, we are all truly excited to be in the presence of our hero. Set-opener Velvety has us jumping around like it was 1988 (regardless of how old we were back then) and almost wetting ourselves in anticipation of the next two hours or so.
The gig is thick and fast, and the classics are belted out with no sign of slowing. There is little doubt that the man has an amazing back-catalogue of writing, and the Catholics seem only too happy to dip into the material conceived before they joined the fray.
Many of the songs have been around for the best part of a decade, but, to our delight, Black re-visits each of his many and varied albums, from the anthemic sing-alongs of Headache and Robert Onion to the best cuts from his critically acclaimed Teenager Of The Year LP (those being Abstract Plain and Freedom Rock, the latter of which generated scenes of frantic euphoria in the pit).
The eclectic set-list is dominated by songs from 2003’s fantastic Show Me Your Tears, many of which sound just about as good as anything he has ever done. The outstanding Massif Centrale is joined by the likes of Snake, Horrible Day and a bruising rendition of Snake. Pixies songs are, of course, used sparingly to maximum effect. The opening chords of Cactus act as the starting pistol for sentimental jumping and jostling, and it’s hard to describe the kind of nirvana generated by Caribou and Velouria (that boy can still holler, let me tell you).
A deafening chorus of cheers brings the band back for a four song encore, including the Pogues-esque When Will Happiness Find Me Again. Although a second encore is called for but not received, it is clear that a unique brand of happiness has found us all again, for one night at least. Long may Frank Black and his Catholics induce this kind of genuine excitement throughout the gigging world.