Little Winston Bertrand is not quite ten months old, and already he's received probably the most spectacular Christmas present any kid is likely to get this season: Last night's supreme lineup of alt-rock giants at the Echo, lead by the mighty Black Francis and The Pixies (well, three-quarters of them anyway; Kim Deal is in London and couldn't participate), performing to raise funds to help pay for the astronomical costs of Winston's medical care. (The tot was born with two rare and life-threatening malformations; his mom, Jennifer Bertrand, is a friend of Violet Clark, Francis (nee Charles Thompson)'s wife and fellow member of Grand Duchy, also on the lineup last night.)
Braving a crisp, cold L.A. December night to pour into the Echoplex and witness an obscene amount of talent for the $25 ticket price, die-hards young and old (mostly old... okay, not old, but of an age when they were likely spinning The Pixies and most of tonight's acts at their college radio gigs) arrived promptly to catch a short but tight set from openers The 88, whose ebullient melodies and infectious beats sounded superb. (Despite the Echoplex's odd-angled sightlines, the remarkably good sound made up for that for most of the night, with exceptions; more on that later...) The evening's humble hosts took the stage next, and Grand Duchy's excellent him-and-her chemistry excelled; Francis and wife Clark are a definite presence on stage, dreamier and synthier than his Pixies and solo work but, at its best, no less indelible.
Leave it to the inimitable David J., up next, to remind everyone of the significance of the evening's date without specifically pointing it out; he opened his set with a lovely cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," and if you knew, you knew. The Bauhaus and Love & Rockets vet brought out Francis - aka "the guv'nah" - as well to join him on celestially-twinned Pixies titles "Monkey Gone to Heaven" (on which J.'s vocals were impressively impassioned, though hovering below Francis's trademark searing wail) and "In Heaven," plus what ended up as a rousing sing-along to Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," (An "old English folk song," as it was introduced. Indeed.)
Next up, Michael Penn took solo to a stark, blue-hued stage to deliver lovely, lilting acoustic versions of some of his best tracks, including "Me Around" and "Walter Reed"; sadly, this is where the acoustics at the Echoplex dropped the ball.
Pin a good deal of blame, too, on many guests in the rear half of the room (under that low overhang) who quite loudly yammered away through most of Penn's set and proceeded to drown him out for pretty much anyone who wasn't crowded into the first several rows. Despite the peripheral rudeness, a fine showing from one of our most underrated singer-songwriters... well, ever, to be honest.
Having far less trouble reaching the back of the room were Tenacious D, a late but, judging from the room's reaction, extremely welcome addition to the lineup; having taken time away from the spotlight to whet their rapier wits, Jack Black and Kyle Gass launched instantly into a ballad of reflection about how spectacularly their film The Pick of Destiny bombed at the box office. (And worrying affectionately about their most dedicated fans: "What will they dooo? / Will they laser off the D tattoo?!") It wasn't long before Black Francis was back for another Pixies jam, the D this time lending a raucous flamenco-style flair to Surfer Rosa's "Oh My Golly!" (And a nifty comedy homage to that album's accidental spoken-word "bonus track". Jack: "You fuckin DIE!"; Francis: "You talking to me?"; Jack: "No, I was talking to Kim." Audience = in stitches.)
At last, the headlining indie-dream variety act of "Black Francis & Friends" took to the stage in various waves, starting with solo Frank and the always popular hometown anthem "Los Angeles." (Though he chuckled afterward: "I temporarily forgot there was an X song called 'Los Angeles,' that was a kind of dumb move on my part.") First guest backup band of the night OK GO joined the maestro for a rocket-fueled rendition of "Debaser" and, endearingly, couldn't seem to contain the shit-eating grins on their faces as they did so. After an introduction to baby Winston's parents and a sincere, sweet thank you from Clark, Francis returned matched tremendously with bassist Simon "Dingo" Archer, who has backed everyone from The Fall to PJ Harvey, for a few numbers including Roxy Music's "Remake/Remodel." (a live fave of his from his days fronting The Catholics, if we're not mistaken.)
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There's still more?! Oh, you betcha: A long and jam-packed finale it was, with She Wants Revenge joining Francis for "Wave of Mutilation," followed by their own serviceable if not inspiring cover of the Psychedelic Furs "Love My Way"; David J. returning triumphantly for a soaring rendition of Love & Rockets "All In My Mind". When Francis' Pixies compadres Joey Santiago and Dave Lovering finally joined him, it was Kim Shattuck of the Muffs pulling stellar substitute-Kim duties on tracks including "Tame" and "Velouria" (the latter of which made my guest and I really wish more people would reconsider Bossanova... no it's not Doolittle, but honestly, what album is?!) The urge for sing-along mode hit the crowd again as they devoured arguably the one and only Pixies "hit", "Here Comes Your Man." In the very end, Flea merged his pluck-and-slap bass stylings admirably with the fellas on "Vamos" and the eternally anthemic "Where Is My Mind?" but in the evening's most buzzed-about appearance, Weird Al Yankovic definitely defied expectations as he took to the mike to vocalize earnestly and faithfully on one of Doolittle's best tracks, "I Bleed." Despite rumors to the contrary, there was nary an accordion in sight.
"Winston Calling" concludes tonight with a comedy-themed show featuring Tim and Eric, Brian Posehn, Bob Odenkirk and Pixies drummer Dave Lovering's magic act; for more info, visit www.attheecho.com. For more information on baby Winston's condition and cause, click HERE.