Awash in golden light and decked out in a “running sucks” holey T-shirt and Dickies, Stephen Malkmus took kindly to his center-stage role right away Thursday night, wisecracking about the band’s Coney dog dinner and waxing nostalgic toward his history with St. Andrew’s Hall: “The 18th hole is very nice …”
If there were any ideas that the former Pavement front man’s new “roomier” band, the Jicks, wouldn’t fill up the stage with the post-punk blast of distorto-quirk sound he’s been credited with inspiring, those were squashed early. An upbeat version of “Jenny & the Ess-Dog,” a semi-ballad in the vein of “Jack & Diane” off his new self-titled album, opened the set. The new rhythm section (John Moen on drums and Joanna Bolme on bass) kept a nice, steady backbeat while the second guitarist-effects man accentuated Malkmus’ wandering mock rock-starisms.
And Malkmus’ girlfriend, Heather Larimer, staked out stage right as she and her tambourine bounced along to a beat just slightly more uptempo than the music provided. In a way, her silly antics offered a small substitution for the madman ways of former Pavement drummer-grandstander Gary Young, who would randomly scream, perform handstands and occasionally collapse drunk onstage before he left the band in 1993.
The entire scene was one of mutual respect and a relaxed, level-headed acceptance of that respect. As the audience yelled out such witticisms as “This guy is fucking brilliant!” and “Marry me!” Malkmus politely thanked them and then chided back, knocking himself in the process and properly releasing the air from his head.
While the rest of the Jicks grooved to background blue and red smoke, Malkmus was swathed in yellowed light, providing somewhat of an antiquated credibility to the unyielding focus of a sea of thick-rimmed, bespectacled eyeballs attached to tilted and/or bobbing heads. He is in fact a hero to legions of music fans, a ’90s innovator. And they couldn’t have been more excited to hear the songs off his sunny, summery, most recent release.
While the Jicks didn’t break out into “Stereo,” “Cut Your Hair” or any of the other college-rock mid-level hits of his last band (surprise, surprise), it’s obvious the Malk isn’t trying to alienate anyone inside Pavement’s zealous fanbase with his new material. Sure it’s lighter, cleaner and a teensy bit less cryptic, but really (hush, hush) it’s Pavement to the core.
The band seemed to be getting tired. They lived in different parts of the country and couldn’t practice. Of course, a solo effort from one of the main creative forces behind the band would be similar, only more refreshing. Almost all breakup albums follow in this grand tradition. But who would’ve guessed that Bob Nastanovich (Pavement’s drummer) would be selling merch in the venue lobby?
Overall, the show moved smoothly from new song to new song, with a few obscure Minders and Fairport Convention covers thrown in for good measure. Midway through the set, Malkmus joked, “This song’s off our new album,” as if the rest (besides the covers) weren’t. This relaxed, carefree attitude just added to the fun as he posed, threw his arms in the air and even nearly pirouetted, at one point stretching out onstage and inside the whacked-out, swing-your-guitar-round-and-round solos.
Toward the end, his mic stand bore the brunt of his uncoordination as he swung around to witness it falling three times. Like a child, he watched it tumble like a wooden block structure, gave a look of “oh no!,” and waited for the tech to come fix the situation, while his band mates giggled and covered up for him on the vocal parts.
The set closed with a spacey, groovy funk ‘n’ punk cover of a song that sounded like Talking Heads, but most likely wasn’t. Nobody in my vicinity could trace the name of the tune, but it is notable enough to remark that Malkmus transformed flawlessly from an awkward geek with guitar to a robotic paranoid David Byrne-esque character as the overhead lights flickered in a panic for the band to exit. After a short trip backstage, the band bounded back with the bouncy two-song encore that left everyone swooning as the crowd lingered behind smiles far and wide.
Sure, the show wasn’t a replacement for Pavement, but it did soften the blow a little after the unfortunate breakup. And it offers promise that the wells of creativity bubbling inside this indie-rock icon are far from running dry. With less screech and more structure to the songs, it’s true he may be mellow-yellowing out just a little bit, but there’s no way he’s fading.