Twenty years after the birth of Pavement, one of the more influential bands of the past two decades, Stephen Malkmus continues to be a figure in the center of the indie rock universe. Although certainly entitled to kick back and take a long nap on his laurels, the man known as “SM” has proved unwilling to cruise along on his cred. Since the breakup of Pavement 10 years ago, Malkmus has released four albums, three of them with his band The Jicks. Although he’s always willing to play Pavement songs, he has remained focused on writing and playing new material. Because of this relentless creativity and a longstanding eagerness to take bands of his musical progeny along on tour, the patriarch of the slacker generation has become more ingrained than ever in the indie sphere. Malkmus’ sold-out solo show at the Great American last week seemed a natural fit in a Noise Pop lineup largely filled with young bands and darlings of the blog age.
Folksy San Francisco-based openers Goh Nakamura and Kelley Stoltz seemed to have attracted a few loyal fans, but the full capacity crowd was clearly there for Malkmus. Although the venue was not yet filled enough for crowd noise to be an issue during Nakamura’s set, second opener Peggy Honeywell was more or less drowned out and had to resort to making passive -aggressive requests for the audience to quiet down. Stoltz, appearing third, didn’t have much better luck, but the soundman had the foresight to increase the volume between sets. Stoltz finally managed to catch the crowd’s attention as he capped his set with a rather outstanding cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Read it in Books” (If you have not heard Pavement’s take on Bunnymen classic “The Killing Moon,” I recommend you check out the recent deluxe release of “Brighten the Corners.”)
When he finally appeared, Malkmus came on stage holding an acoustic guitar and a laptop, announcing, “It’s only me, it’s only me,” in response to the frantic cheering. After a bit of banter (“It smells like weed, yo”) he began with “Harness Your Hopes” and a stream of Pavement classics followed. The laptop provided distortion for a few songs, but Malkmus remained alone on stage throughout the set. Everyone was wild to hear pared-down versions of songs like “Spit on a Stranger” and “Loretta’s Scars,” but the highlights of the night came from more naturally bare numbers such as “Zurich is Stained” and “Heaven is a Truck.”
Pavement songs, especially those from the “Slanted/Enchanted” era, made up the bulk of the set, but Malkmus did throw in a cover of the Silver Jews’ “Blue Arrangements,” as well as a number of Jicks songs. Surprisingly though, the set was at it’s most shambolic when Malkmus played his latest work. One of his strings conveniently snapped soon after beginning “Real Emotional Trash” (by far the longest song in his catalogue) and after stopping, he opened up his guitar case to reveal that he had not brought any replacements. When someone back stage gave him new strings, Malkmus declared “this is gonna take three minutes – hold on” and proceeded to screw on the wrong string (although, to his credit, he did make the change within the promised timeframe). Later in the set no one was more amused than Malkmus himself when he had to abandon “Vanessa from Queens” after forgetting the lyrics in the second verse.
As his set played out as a sort of haphazard retrospective, Malkmus appeared conscious of his legacy, but seemed to take it less seriously than anyone else in the building. When delivering his famously sarcastic lines about the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots during “Range Life”, he gave a knowing snicker, acknowledging the references that now seem both prescient and dated. After the botched attempt at “Vanessa from Queens,” he introduced “Here” joking, “this one’s so iconic I didn’t even practice it.” The final song of the night, “Summer Babe,” was interrupted midway through as Malkmus stopped and explained that he could not play the bridge on an acoustic guitar. After a few swigs of water he finished the song with a barrage of sloppy howls and ad-libbed profanity, then waved and disappeared off stage, leaving the audience shell-shocked and satisfied.