Pixies @ Bowery Ballroom

MANHATTAN, NY—When Pixies bassist Kim Deal announced this summer that she was quitting the group, many fans wondered if it meant the end for their alternative rock heroes.

Well, far from it.

Instead, the band announced a full tour, hired Muffs leader Kim Shattuck to handle bass duties, and actually released an EP containing the first new Pixies material—except for a one-off 2004 single—in 22 years.

As the Pixies descended on the Big Apple for four shows in late September, the biggest question on my mind was how Shattuck would fit in. Though very talented in her own right, Shattuck has no easy task replacing Deal, whose perky vocals were a signature element of the Pixies sound, and who was arguably the band’s most popular member.

The Kim switcheroo didn’t seem to faze the packed house at the Bowery Ballroom—the Pixies were cheered like conquering heroes when they emerged on stage.

Though the crowd was supercharged, the band set a pensive mood to start, opening with the methodical twang of “Wave Of Mutilation (UK Surf version).” While best known for caffeinated, edgy rock tunes, the Pixies filled the early part of their set with mellower numbers—”In Heaven” (with Black Francis handling Deal’s lead vocal), mid-tempo new track “Andro Queen,” and pop-influenced “Here Comes Your Man.”

Often performed as a set closer, “Where Is My Mind” was unleashed early on, a powerful rendition of a signature Pixies track. Joey Santiago’s ringing guitar echoed off the club walls and sent a jolt through the crowd, who sang along with gusto to the tune’s familiar “ooo-oooo” refrain.

Things perked up even more with “Nimrod’s Son,” Francis spouting his quirky lyrics over the chugging beat, while Santiago’s memorable, cutting guitar notes formed the only chorus needed. The familiar opening riff of “Velouria” followed, a song that proved to be one of the evening’s high points, as Francis sang at his most melodic and earnest.

A triumvirate of favorites from classic album Surfer Rosa—“River Euphrates,” “Broken Face” and “Something Against You”—sent the crowd into a frenzy and demonstrated the band at its ferocious best. The Surfer Rosa era was arguably the Pixies’ artistic pinnacle, and these songs still held their power as if you were hearing them for the first time.

Throughout the night, drummer David Lovering’s muscular beats, always an overlooked part of the Pixies sound, drove the songs with authority. His playing seemed effortless and was sheer perfection.

Santiago’s musicianship was also a standout, his surf-drenched melodies, hyper riffs and tasteful use of feedback coloring each tune.

Francis was focused, yet seemed to be enjoying himself greatly, a departure from his normally stoic veneer.

As for Shattuck, she passed with flying colors. She nailed every Pixies bassline and handled her vocal duties adequately. Her obvious enthusiasm, so essential to Muffs gigs over the years, added a welcome stage presence to the Pixies.

The set grew heavier as it progressed, with blistering renditions of “Gouge Away,” “What Goes Boom” and “Planet Of Sound” bringing the main set to a close.

Returning for an encore, the band reprised “Wave Of Mutilation,” this time the more energetic album version, and ended with the seldom-played “Rock Music,” with Francis screaming into the mic with all the vigor of a crazed teenager.

The Pixies sounded incredibly tight throughout the entire set, perhaps the most polished and rehearsed they’ve sounded since first reuniting in 2004. Even to a longtime Pixies fanatic like myself, it was impressive how little Deal was missed in the live show.

They performed all four tracks from the new EP-1, as well as several other new tunes destined for future release (the group recently announced that it will put out three more EPs over the next year or so).

Rather than grinding the band to a halt, Deal’s departure has spurred the Pixies to a flurry of activity, giving them a new lease on life.