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.
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
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
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