On Tuesday night at Club Cafe, Reid Paley and Black Francis turned out to be at their best as ... Paley & Francis.
The two friends from the old Boston punk scene released an album together, but that was two years ago. So that's not what this tour was about. Rather, they did separate sets, starting with Paley, who reigned over the Pittsburgh punk scene in the early '80s as the frontman of noise terrorists The Five.
Paley always had a sharp edge to him, which has dulled only slightly with age. As a singer-songwriter with a guitar, well, he's no Richard Thompson on either level, but that's not the idea. His approach is just raw, guttural, boozy, and if his beat-up Gretsch isn't quite in tune, so what.
"Show of hands, how many care if I'm in tune?" he said, and when one brave soul raised his hand, he joked, "Security! Get him out if here!"
The songs were wry, amusing takes on the themes of pain, unhappiness and self-loathing and what is required to soothe them. "I'm not a happy man," he started one song that went on to a hearty chorus of "Pour me one more drink, and take me home." Paley likes to throw in long, pregnant pauses, as if to say, "You gotta problem with any of this?"
And, as if fully aware that he's more aging punk thrasher than virtuoso, he told the room, "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your perfunctory, half-hearted applause."
One of the highlights, by request, was "I'm Not Dead (I'm in Pittsburgh)," a song recorded by Francis in 2006 that Paley said "is often misinterpreted." Written by Paley, who left here for good in 1986, it does not actually equate being in Pittsburgh with being barely alive.
The headliner came with a more sonic setup that had his Telecaster cranked, pretty much from the first song, "Wicked Son," to the last, and he blazed through his hour-plus set as though he had a bus to catch. It verged on perfunctory, lacking the fire and dynamic range we expect from the head Pixie.
About eight songs in, as he reached for a harmonica that he would barely use, he even said, "I'm stuck in the chugga-chugga thing." He kind of stayed that way, even though we all may have been better off with an acoustic treatment on something like "She Took All the Money."
Despite that, Francis/Black/Thompson (whatever you want to call him) is still a vocal and melodic powerhouse, and his lyrics take you on weird trips that spark the imagination. The flavors ranged from hard-driving post-punk (the Stooges-sounding "When They Come to Murder Me" being a standout) to Stonesy departures such as "Dead Man's Curve" and "California Bound."
He was generous with Pixies material, doing three from 1987's "Come on Pilgrim" including "Caribou," which prompted his first scream of the night, more than 20 songs into the set. He didn't put much wave or mutilation into "Wave of Mutilation," but it sounded good and was well-received nonetheless. The participatory highlight of the night was the lurching "Where Is My Mind?" during which the crowd supplied the high ghostly vocal part. He introduced it saying that the song has been good to him, even if he hasn't gotten paid for all its placements.
He added, "I don't know what the song's about. No one knows what it's about," and that surely goes for many of his songs.
When Paley hit the stage for the encores, they fed off each other's energy right away, for "Ugly Life" and "Magic Cup," two growling songs from "Paley & Francis." "Another Velvet Nightmare," from a 2006 collaboration, ending with a screaming match clearly won by the Pixie. They closed with a cover of Kinky Friedman's "Wild Man From Borneo."
This is not, by any means, a pretty pair of voices together, but if your city is on their tour and you like grit, here come your men.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576.