Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks played a sold-out show at Music Hall of Williamsburg on February 27th. Malkmus has basically settled into nice late-career groove, pumping out a record every couple years, touring, and repeating. He’s no longer running away from the Pavement years, having gotten all that out of his system during the reunion a few years ago, and he’s regularly playing a Pavement song or two during his sets now. And even though he’s been Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks longer than he’s been in Pavement now, there’s no doubt that it’s the Pavement songs that still get the most reaction, particularly when he’s playing deeper cuts and b-sides like “Harness Your Hopes,” as he did at MHOW.
Venerable indie record label Matador Records turned 21 this year, and what better place to hold a 21st birthday celebration than Las Vegas? So over three days at the Palms, a cavalcade of Matador stars, past and present, celebrated the label that helped to usher in “indie rock” into the musical vernacular.
The mood all weekend was, naturally, nostalgic and celebratory. Liz Phair called it a “college reunion,” and many of the bands cited how excited they were to see the old gang again. These days, record labels are less and less relevant, but waaaaaay back in the 90′s, you could tell a lot about a band simply based on what label they were on. And in the 90′s, Matador was the big dog of the indie labels, home to some of the most influential bands of the decade, like Pavement, Guided By Voices, Liz Phair, and Belle and Sebastian.
Besides the actual music of the weekend, which was generally great all around, the best thing about the shows was that all the bands stayed in the Palms, along with most of the fans. So just walking around, you’d see bands all over, hanging out, gambling, etc. I checked in to the hotel as Pavement was arriving, had breakfast flanked by various New Pornographers, and stepped into the elevator with Superchunk. So there was a very communal feeling all weekend. Plus, it was kind of amazing how great almost every person performing looked. It’s like there was a fountain of youth clause in the standard Matador contract. Everyone looks almost exactly the same, if not better, as they did in the 90′s. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is pushing 60, and looks the same. Same with Thurston Moore. Steve Malkmus and Bob Nostanovich look almost better, Mac McCaughan from Superchunk still looks like he’s 14, and Robert Pollard of GBV is obviously immortal.
Best performance awards go to Superchunk and Sonic Youth, two been-around-forever acts that still brought the A-game. Superchunk in particular had the best energy of any act all weekend. Yo La Tengo reminded me why I like their records but hate their live show- endelss guitar wankery surrounding what would otherwise be beautiful songs. And the Pavement performance was the most intriguing, as the happy feelings around the reunion seemed to come crashing down in front of our eyes. It was like watching a train wreck set to indie rock. Whether it was due to sound problems or intra-band strife or a mixture of both, the band seemed all out of sorts. Scott Kannberg in particular spent most of the hour-long set visibly pissed off, stepping off stage several times to berate the sound guy.
Current Matador artists like New Pornographers, Belle and Sebastian, Kurt Vile, and Fucked Up were no slouches, and showed that the label is still in pretty good hands, while artists from Matador past like Spoon, Superchunk, and Chavez gave off a local-boy-does good vibe.
It was also great to see Liz Phair and Cat Power, two notoriously stage-fright-y singers, received so warmly by the crowd and give great performances. Chan Marshall was nearly upstaged by her great backing band, and Phair played a sparse, but great, 20 minute set, accompanied by a single guitarist, and joined by Ted Leo for set closer “Fuck and Run.” In a weekend full of nostalgia, Phair’s performance seemed the most nostalgic, given her less-than-amicable split from the label over 15 years ago, as well as the less-than stellar reception of her recent albums.
And of course, they highlight of the weekend was a tour-de-force by the “classic 1993-96″ lineup of the recently reunited Guided By Voices, who tore through 30+ songs over a two-hour, multiple-encore set.
Check out a slew of pictures below.
While it was largely viewed as something of a 90′s revival at Sunday’s Pavement show – the first of the long-awaited, weeklong NYC residency by the indie-rock gods – a quick survey of the scene revealed how 21st century the event really was. If it were really the 90′s, the show would not have been in Williamsburg at all, nestled by a riverside park and rows of sprawling condominiums. Hell, there wouldn’t have even been a bike lane on the street, if the street was useable at all. But while a lot has changed in the decreasingly industrial Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg in the last decade, the music industry has changed much more. Amid all the remakes and revivals of movies, TV shows, and TV shows made into movies, it’s hard to recall a more backwards-looking era in popular culture. So it’s not surprising that the most popular trend in music is the nostalgia industry. Since the Pixies reunited for a tour in 2004, a parade of other bands have reunited for huge and lucrative reunion tours. Long-gone acts, big and small – from My Bloody Valentine, the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup, and Faith No More, to the Police, Genesis, and Stone Temple Pilots – have gotten back together in recent years. Additionally, many still-active bands have held concerts centered around playing classic, 90′s albums.
No matter the reason for the original splits- creative difference, drugs, death(s) – the reason for all the reunions, whatever other reasons are given, is obvious: cold, hard cash. And Pavement are no exceptions. And who can really blame them? If you can sell out five shows in New York City one year in advance, as they did, you book those shows. So what if the band members may or may not like each other? There’s a demand, so why not fill it? Because this isn’t the 90′s. As music sales have gone over a cliff over the past decade, “selling out” is less a pejorative and more of a solid strategy for band longevity. Add in the fact that we’re living in possibly the most nostalgia-filled era in the history of music, and it’s no wonder reunion tours are all the rage.
That’s not to say Pavement phoned it in and collected a big check. On the contrary, the show was so good that it hardly seemed like they took any time off. ”Slacker rock” was always a go-to description of Pavement, but they were a pretty tight live band by the end of their original run, if deceptively so. Stephen Malkmus’s lackadaisical manner on stage hides the fact that he’s a supremely talented guitarist. He’d have to be, to sound so great while appearing to play so lazily. Musically, Pavement may be playing better than ever. Inter-personally, however… it did seem like the late 90′s, because there didn’t appear to be a whole lot of love on the stage. If you ever need to see an illustration of the word “disinterested,” just watch Malkmus any time the band is playing one of Spiral Stairs’s songs. During “Date w/IKEA,” the second songin the set, Malkmus completely checked out, and did calisthenics on the side of the stage, adding “I love working out to that song,” at the end.
Still, even if Pavement seem less like a band and more like five guys going about their business, they seemed to all be enjoying themselves, if only on an individual basis. They didn’t interact all that much with each other, but were clearly still thrilled to be back, playing to such a huge gathering. Bob Nostanovich worked the crowd, did his usual maniacal jumping around and screaming, bouncing around the stage and behind his second-drummer kit. Bassist Mark Ibold seemed to be in a state of bliss most of the show, and Steve West didn’t appear to curse at Malkmus once, which was a nice change from the last few times I saw Pavement in 1999.
(Update– After seeing a few of the Central Park shows later in the week, the band did seem to be having a better time, with a lot more camaraderie and enthusiasm. By all accounts, the Williamsburg show seems to have been an off-night.)
Regardless of any other circumstances, it’d be hard to argue that this wasn’t a great show. The band sounded great, and they did the reunion the right way. Because unlike some other recently reunited bands, Pavement don’t seem to have any plans to record any new songs. So the setlist was just a 27-song greatest-hits list. From the singles like “Cut Your Hair,” “Gold Soundz,” “Summer Babe” and “Shady Lane,” to deeper album cuts like “In the Mouth a Desert” and “Unfair,” to EP tracks “Heckler Spray” and “Frontwards,” it was truly was a career-spanning setlist, and seemed to keep up with the spirit of a reunion- reminiscing about the glory days, looking back fondly with the knowledge that those days are long gone, and that it’s probably for the best. The show would have been much less enjoyable if they had a new album to peddle. Hell, it would’ve been less enjoyable if they’d played more than one song from Terror Twilight. People wanted to hear the old favorites, and Pavement delivered in spades.
And I’d hate to see Malkmus’ behavior if he had to play a NEW Spiral Stairs song.