Monday, July 25, 2011

Photos/Review: Black Francis @ Le Poisson Rouge

Black Francis @ Le Poisson Rouge – July 24th, 2011

Photos: Dana (distortion) Yavin / Review: Colin Fitzgerald

My first assignment for this super cool blog was to cover the incomparable newly re-christened Black Francis (aka Charles Thompson, aka Frank Black), at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan. (To avoid confusion I will refer to him as Chuck T. for the remainder of the review) The night turned out to be nothing like I expected. I, being a fan of Chuck T's solo career in its entirety, had no trouble picturing the set he would play. I knew he wrote "Another Velvet Nightmare" with the show’s opener, Reid Paley, and I figured most of the material would fall into the category of country-western Frank Black that was prevalent in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. That expectation was definitely shattered but I’ll get to that later.

LPR was laid out like the kind of place Tony Clifton would be right at home at. Dim lighting, tables with candles, and wine delivered to makeshift booths in ice buckets. It was surreal. No sooner did I picture Andy Kaufman's lounge-singing alter ego did Reid Paley take the stage, reinforcing the parallel with his gruff, conversational demeanor and his acerbic wit. After a long and deadly silent pause between him getting on stage and finally acknowledging the crowd, Reid broke the ice in grand fashion. "Thank you and good night!" he shouted into the mic, and pretty much all the sanctity that was established in the cocktail-party atmosphere of LPR was shattered in an instant.

Reid Paley was the consummate bar-room troubadour, equal parts Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Johnny Lee Hooker. That’s not to say he was derivative. In all the sing-along-ready, blues-punk-drunken tunes he cranked out, nothing felt anything less than honest. He strummed nasty guitar and sang hangover-inspired lyrics with abandon, or so he would have you believe. His style of 'make it seem easy, seat of the pants performing was deceptively easy-going. He knows how to play and sing like anybody, but he also knows how to put you at ease with the artist. He often paused mid-song to elevate the crowd’s awareness of him just long enough to gaze into the crowd with a smirk before launching back into the song. He was raw, unpolished, honest, and absolutely soulful. He commanded the dinner party crowd with his somewhat familiar and personable style. Just another down on his luck everyman, who just happens to be able to draw the listener in totally, leaving them no choice but to live the debaucherous stories with him.

Reid Paley
Right before Chuck T. took the stage I got some great advice from Dana Distortion. I confided that with all I knew of Chuck, I still had no idea what to expect, and she said, “Don’t expect anything,” and it was good advice. I knew his last couple of tours saw him embrace his Black Francis moniker of old, trading the country western style for his punk rock roots. Images of Chuck, guitarless and thinner, crouched over a mike with shades on singing “Threshold Apprehension” filled my head before the show. I had also heard of the forthcoming collaboration with the shows opener, Reid Paley, (who co-wrote with Frank on a few of those country-ish songs) so I was confused. Was this going to be Black Francis or Frank Black? Turns out, it didn't matter. The show was completely different, yet far greater than I could have imagined.

The entire performance was Chuck accompanied by Eric Drew Feldman on triple duty: electric organ, grand piano and bass. Just Google Eric Drew Feldman if you want to know anything about the unbelievable career this guy has had. He is a living legend. They came on stage with no fanfare as the house music continued to play, but anticipation was high. Chuck looked relatively slim in his t-shirt and jeans and sported the colored shades that have become synonymous with the rebirth of Black Francis. He opened with the Tom Waits song "Black Rider" and with Feldman on cathedral style organ, he threw everyone in the crowd for a loop. Whereas the song as it appeared on Black Letter Days was slightly awkward and kind of bizarre, this rendition was stunning. Chuck was without guitar and he delivered every line like a sermon. As the duo blazed through the first quarter of the set, it felt like the church of Black Francis. The arrangements were sparse and completely song-centric. In other words, it was all about expressing the melodic prowess of Chuck in the simplest, most vivid fashion possible. His guitar playing was impeccable, and it was great to hear his underrated rhythmic style with such clarity. I was thrown again and again by songs I never expected to hear in this setting. "Two Reelers,” "Ten Percenter" and "Los Angeles" are hardly the songs you would expect to be performed by two guys while people ate steak and drank chardonnay mere feet away.

Eric Drew Feldman
Eric Drew Feldman and Chuck came across like old friends. When Chuck teasingly 'beckoned' him to the organ, or 'sent him away' to the piano or bass with improvised ditties, a strong sense of mutual respect was conveyed. Being the indie icon that he is, it’s always cool to hear about people like Eric and say Levon Helm collaborating with him. It just speaks to his influence, and let’s be honest: the thought of old Chuck chilling in Nashville with all of these accomplished veterans is pretty cool.

Long story short: It was Chuck T. wearing all hats and showing many sides, unrestrained, yet in an intimate setting. It was not the sit down, stripped down affair it seemed to be. Frank belted every note as if a full band was there. There were no acoustic guitars, just overdriven electric strumming. Between him and Reid Paley, this show begged serious reconsideration of just what the singer songwriter genre is limited to. While there were no more than two people on stage at any time, and not a drum beat to be heard, subtlety and delicacy were not the goal. If anything, the inherently stripped down nature of both performances elevated the rawness of expression. Both performers ignored the sanctity of the typical singer-songwriter style and rocked really hard.

Check out a full set of photos from the night, as well as some videos and Chuck T.’s setlist below…

Reid Paley

Black Francis

Black Francis – Le Poisson Rouge – July 24th, 2011
Black Rider
Los Angeles
Where Is My Mind?
The Swimmer
Robert Onion
Sir Rockabye
I Wanna Live on an Abstract Plane
I Heard Ramona Sing
I’ll Be Blue
All Around the World
Sing for Joy
Two Reelers
Nimrod’s Son
I Burn Today
That Burnt Out Rock and Roll
She Took All The Money


  1. Glad to see Black Francis fans here and no haters like this other music blog that we know of.

  2. He's not a pretty man, but those are nice photos!

  3. This show fucking ruled. Altho the uppity ass setup was lame

  4. I see your still wearing the white button down dress shirt. Not much has changed in 40 years.

  5. That was for Sal from Cryptic.