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Review: Alt-rock heavyweights deliver one of year’s best doubleheaders

Review: Alt-rock heavyweights deliver one of year’s best doubleheaders

The Pixies had just opened their set on Friday night with a powerful version of “Gouge Away” when — I kid you not — a train honks its horn, pulls right in behind the stage and then just sits there for a few minutes.

Definitely not something you see at every concert, right? But it’s one of the many cool things that does indeed happen at the extraordinary Wine Country venue known as Oxbow RiverStage in Napa.

It’s a great place to see a show — a roughly 4,800-capacity outdoor venue located in Oxbow Commons park, attractively nestled between downtown Napa and the winding Napa River. It’s right next to Oxbow Public Market, which means concert-goers have a ton of great dining options before heading into the show — including those famed English muffins, an Oprah Winfrey fave, at the Model Bakery.

And, most dramatically, there’s the Napa Valley Wine Train that runs on elevated rails right behind the stage, adding a fun “special effect” that you simply won’t get anyway else.

Combine all of that with a truly great show — like we got he Pixies and Modest Mouse’s co-headlining date on Friday — and the experience is pretty hard to beat.

The Pixies and the Mouse have been taking turns closing the shows on this tour. In Napa, the former went on last, capping the night with 75 minutes of cool tunes that underscored why this legendary Boston group deserves to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The highly influential quartet, which helped draw up the roadmap for what alternative rock would sound like in the ’90s with the seminal late-’80s outings “Surfer Rosa” and “Doolittle,” sounded terrific as it rolled through more than 20 tunes, including such longtime favorites as “Wave of Mutilation” and “Vamos.”

Black Francis (who goes by Frank Black on his solo recordings) was in strong voice throughout the night, handling the Velvet Underground-meets-Monkees pop of “Here Comes Your Man” and the full-throttle rocker “Debaser” with equal aplomb.

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Yet, Joey Santiago — as he’s known to do — would continually steal the spotlight from Francis, as he rocked through a number of spellbinding guitar parts. The other two members of the band — bassist Paz Lenchantin and drummer David Lovering — also did fine work as the group touched upon 1990’s “Bossanova,” 1991’s “Trompe le Monde” and other albums.

The Pixies closed their set with their excellent cover of Neil Young’s “Winterlong.”

Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse brought their tour with the Pixies and Cat Poser to Oxbow Riverstage in Napa on Friday, Sept. 15. (Mat Hayward/Getty Images archives) 

Modest Mouse was even better than the Pixies, delivering one of those special nights where the music just felt so urgent and alive. Sure, the setlist was filled with tunes that were years — and, in many cases, decades — old, yet that’s not how they came across. Instead, it often felt like the band was conjuring up completely new material right on the spot.

The Mouse came out the gates with a burst of energy, looking to win the race on Lap 1, as vocalist-guitarist Isaac Brock and company opened with an (inter)stellar version of “Dark Center of the Universe” from the group’s best album, 2000’s “The Moon & Antarctica.”

From there, the Pacific Northwest rock act just kept right on running, delivering equally powerful versions of “Dashboard” (from 2007’s “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank”), “Bury Me with It” (from 2004’s “Good News for People Who Love Bad News”) and “Paper Thin Walls” (another “Moon & Antarctica” cut).

It was like Modest Mouse was erecting a wall of sound with each new number, which the group would proceed to intentionally topple over, sending shock waves of delight through the audience, before starting the process all over again.

The group somehow managed to take its game to an even higher level toward the end of its set, hitting fans with an elongated, improvisational and avant-garde take on the “Antarctica” gem “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” — complete with a bizarrely fascinating spoken-word segment — which felt far closer in spirit to Pharoah Sanders or Ornette Coleman than what you’ll hear on modern-rock radio.

Cat Power opened the show, performing a set that included intriguing covers of “(Theme from) New York, New York” and “Sea of Love.”