Pavement's Non-Revolutionary Rock Revolution

As usual, Pavement do things their own way. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

It was a great set that Pavement laid down for a sold out house at

Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club on Tuesday night (May 13). Great, that is, but not

life-altering. There was no monumental connection between audience and band, no

definition (intentional or not) of what it means to be a rock group in the

'90s. All of which actually suited the band just fine. What the Pavement

offered on Tuesday was a simple rock 'n' roll show, full of excellent songs,

created by five guys who are well aware of the potential and the limitations of

their medium, and consequently who know what they want to do with it.

The

band's 21-song, 80-minute set concentrated heavily on their most recent album,

Brighten The Corners. If long-time fans were clamoring for more songs

from Pavement's landmark Slanted And Enchanted and Crooked Rain,

Crooked Rain, they largely kept their longing to themselves. In fact, the

crowd projected a sense of trust in the band: rather than call out requests for

songs they feared weren't on the set list, the audience waited patiently for

whatever the group had up their sleeve. Though stalwarts like "Cut Your Hair"

(about which singer Stephen Malkmus said, "I feel weird playing this") and the

encore closer "Conduit For Sale" inevitably received hero's welcomes, the newer

material was almost as rousing.

It was Brighten The Corners'

"Stereo," for example, that got audience members up and jumping. The band ran

through a full nine of the 12 songs on their latest album. While Pavement's

live arrangements didn't expand much on the recorded versions, they wrought the

pieces with enough vigor and confidence to make any detractors go home for a

second listen.

On stage, the members fell comfortably...



On stage, the members fell comfortably into their

established roles. If, as some have suggested, Pavement are the '90s artistic

equivalent of the Band, then drummer Steve West made an able Levon Helm.

Barring his summer shorts, the full bearded West Virginia resident was decked

out in mountain regalia, from worn out work boots up to a broken in camping

hat. His tiger's tooth necklace added to the wild man image, particularly on

those several occasions when he saw fit to thank the audience while standing on

top of his drum stool, craning to reach the vocal mike that had been pushed

aside.

Meanwhile, percussionist/keyboard man/backup singer Bob Nastanovich

played the perfect foil to the literary-looking Malkmus. While Malkmus intoned

the lyrics famous for setting fans' heads a-spin, Nastanovich the trickster was

utterly sensible as he jumped about, played his spacey keyboards, and belted

frenetic vocals. Perhaps he just wanted to put on a good show for his pop, who

was watching from the balcony, but Nastanovich (friend of the Beasties,

neighbor of Churchill Downs) is known as something of a jester. Without him

Pavement's full circle would not be complete.

Still, it was Malkmus who

early on summed up both the evening and Pavement's career. Five songs into the

set, the singer and guitarist began "Starlings Of The Slipstream." "I heard

what you said," he sang, "The leaders are dead." Those lyrics and Malkmus'

projection of them made it patently clear that the band was toying with the

makings of rock 'n' roll anthems; and yet, the band leader himself did not face

the audience, as anthem singers generally do. Malkmus instead turned stage left

to face his fellow musicians. It was a subtle, perhaps unconscious move,

probably unnoticed by most of the room. But in doing so, Malkmus focused his

attention not on the crowd--that is, on the people whose consumption has the

power to turn a rock 'n' roll song into an anthem--but rather on his bandmates,

who simply turn out rock 'n' roll. It was as if the singer silently affirmed

that Pavement's intent was to make the best use of rock's traditions, but not

to present their work as a revolutionary force. It was just a force.

If that seems a bit much to be extracted from an unconscious turn, witness

also Malkmus' signature stage move. Dressed in a dark cardigan, khaki pants,

and black-soled white shoes, the singer repeatedly turned left and kicked out

one leg like a pendulum. Were it not for the context of all the rock tradition

that Pavement's music has absorbed (evident on all four of their albums), or

for the anthem-like musical and lyrical tropes in "Slipstream," this gesture,

too, might seem insignificant. But consider the kick in light of Townshend's

leaps and windmills, Jagger's prancing, or Springsteen's fist pumping. Again,

Pavement pulls back from rock as revolution (political, social, or otherwise)

to offer rock as only rock.

In this light, the band's on stage arrangement

makes perfect sense, though it may seem odd in terms of traditional rock 'n'

roll. West and his kit sat on stage right, while opposite him were

Nastanovich's percussion and keyboard set up. Separating the two in the center

of the stage was a stack of speakers. In front of that was bass player Mark

Ibold, flanked on his left and right by guitarist Scott Kannberg and Malkmus,

respectively. Thus, the center of the stage--home for Jagger, Springsteen,

Dylan, and legions of front men--was left to Ibold, who maintained an

inconspicuous presence throughout the show.

Actual front man Malkmus

shifted the audience's focus away from that traditional space and over to one

side. Though spatially the arrangement was symmetrical, in action the stage

felt off kilter. As Malkmus did with his gestures and stance, the band was

assuming as given rock 'n' roll's traditions--right down to the stage set

up--and molding them to their own, more humble vision. On stage at the 9:30

Pavement was in essence rebuilding rock from one side: taking what it needed to

make the music vital, but refusing to claim the centric, revolutionary position

(claimed at different times by artists such as Townshend, Jagger, and

Springsteen) for themselves.

Of course, it is the audience that turns

simple rock 'n' roll songs into revolutionary anthems, and it seems that when a

band is as good as Pavement, their work will be made revolutionary by their

fans, whether or not the group intends such an outcome. In response the band

can refute that image (which some people claim Pavement sought to do with

Wowee Zowee); stop playing altogether; or realize that once created, the

work is out of their hands, and just continue to create--which may be what they

tried to do on Brighten The Corners. We should all welcome such

attempts.