June 25, 2010
@Greek Theatre, Berkeley
Better than: Pavement's hometown show in Stockton the previous night.
The night after its gushy homecoming in Stockton, reunited indie-rock band Pavement summoned its energy, reached deep into its catalog, and (mostly) sharpened its playing for a giddy Greek Theatre crowd Friday. That is, until original drummer Gary Young returned to demonstrate with comically sloppy stickwork why the the other members kicked him out in the first place. (Stated reason: He was too drunk.) But other than the derailed encore, Pavement betrayed its (earned) reputation for indifference, and, a few rough spots aside, the band played a gem-filled set with all the fury the audience could ask for. Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, and Co. have sworn that this year's tour will be temporary, and that the band has no plans to continue on after its over. But damn if they didn't look like they were having a great time onstage Friday.The band certainly did not hold back: Pavement opened its Berkeley show with "Cut Your Hair," a song that became a blueprint for an entire generation of indie-rockers mixing slacker whimsy and pop penetration. Nothing like a huge (and this one was huge) outdoor crowd singing along to all the words, and the energy Friday seemed to stimulate the band's most generous inclinations. The crowd-singing stopped for the second song, "Frontwards," a rare early tune, but kicked up again for the irresistible "Gold Soundz" and for "Stereo," which all but begs for audience participation with its screamed chorus. Afterwards, singer-guitarist Stephen Malkmus muttered, "That was a lot of bangers right in a row, right?" It was, but nobody seemed to mind. This is a good band for bangers. Pavement was started by Malkmus and guitarist/co-songwriter Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg more than 20 years ago, and the band still sounds much like it did then. Malkmus' voice, in particular, doesn't seem to have aged at all. He throws it easily up into adolescent-sounding, high-register screams, and his talk-singing is still some of the best in American rock. The band's guitars and basses growled and fuzzed Friday with a bit more girth than they had in 1994 -- which is welcome -- but they got just as caustic and clingy when clean. Pavement played like respectable heroes in Stockton, but in Berkeley they came off like an unruly bunch of rock stars. Collared shirts aside, Malkmus swilled from a stemmed wine glass, while Kannberg drew big pulls from a bottle of Sierra Nevada. Words were slurred. The crowd was mocked -- a little -- in some from-the-stage banter: "They still have pep rallies here?" Malkmus asked about the venue. "Like, non-music related?" Some of Malkmus' chatter comes off a bit differently in the wake of Saturday's South African disappointment: "I'm not going to say, 'Go USA soccer' -- that's too pathetic," he quipped. But then Malkmus offered some tepid words of encouragement for the team (not that it did any good). The loosened-up band put lots of fire into its show. "Range Life" felt underwhelming Thursday, but ruled on Friday. "Silence Kit," too, came off triumphant, the zig-zagging vocal melody of its chorus line inspiring public vocalizing later on in the set. Pavement also pulled out some rare, older songs such as the jaunty "Box Elder" -- sample line: "I have to get the fuck out of this town" -- and "Lions (Linden)." But it was titans of the Pavement songbook like "Sirens of the Slipstream," "Gold Soundz," "Unfair," "Rattled By the Rush," and "Range Life" that proved best: Loud, precise enough, and with Malkmus' scraping every bit of sarcasm and literate bitterness out of his larynx for the vocal parts. The tense "Stop Breathin'" is a contender for the best Pavement song ever, and was also soaked up Friday with suitable cheers from the crowd. Then came the disastrous end. Late in the set, Gary Young mischievously stalked around onstage while Steve West was still on the drums. He even smashed cymbals and toms on West's and multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich's kits before his turn was up. When Young finally got on the throne, he proved wobbly, out-of-time, and very, very sloppy. From the first moments of "Trigger Cut," the whole band was off. Malkmus, Kannberg and West (now alternating between rhythm guitar and Nastanovich's small kit) shot a few looks back toward the drummer, but Young was bent over, banging away, out of time and seemingly oblivious. "Oh my god, it's so bad," mused one gape-jawed fan I was standing near. Malkmus announced after that was over that the next song would be the last: "Yeah, we tend to go on for a bit," he said. "Not Phish long, but indie-rock long." The band shoved off into "Box Elder," an old tune enjoyable for many reasons, one of which is its cheerfully mean chorus: "I've got a lot of good things coming my way, and I'm afraid to say that you're not one of them." Young held it together -- sort of -- for that simple song. But he pretty much fell apart during the encore. Malkmus flashed an embarrassed (or was it hopeless?) grin during "Lions (Linden)"; the band stumbled through "Summer Babe" (which Young got right in Stockton); and "Here" was so messy the band seemed to just give up after it was over. The delicate tune wouldn't be a natural choice for a closer, but it had to do Friday. As the house lights went up, Kannberg and the rest of the members waved, grinned and thanked the crowd as they walked backstage. Young, shirtless, muttered gratitude into a mic, slithered off the front of the stage, and got lost in the crowd.
Personal bias, part I: I had a moment last night where I was stunned how much reverence is paid to Gen-X-ers. Weren't they supposed to ruin the world with indifference and a lack of ambition? And here we are attaching words to them like "seminal" and even "legendary."
Critical wonkery: I had a moment last night where I fully realized how much Jeff Tweedy of Wilco borrows from Stephen Malkmus. Not that he's the only one, but the similarity in their vocal styles is startling.By the way: At one point, Stephen Malkmus mentioned something about Berkeley being like an extension of Stockton. Geographically, culturally, and demographically, I beg to differ. But I definitely got the feeling that, for Pavement anyway, a party that started Thursday night in Central California ended Friday in the Bay Area.
Personal bias, part II: I love Pavement, but I don't love them like some people do. Or at least I thought I didn't until Friday night -- even with the disastrous comedy of the drunk drummer. As soon as it was over, all I could think about was, when can I see that again? Cheerful answer: Probably never.
Cut Your Hair
Zurich Is Stained
Rattled By The Rush
Spit On A Stranger
Elevate Me Later
In The Mouth of a Desert
Starlings of the Slipstream
[w/Gary Young on drums]