Following a fantastic opening set by No Age (the new tunes sounded amazing, building massive anticipation for the forthcoming Everything In Between), Malkmus crept onstage mischievously and threw a giddy, gut-level fist pump, then launched into “Two States”; peak energy out of the gates and it barely let up all night. The set wasn’t without its lackadaisical moments, but it was all in the name of fun rather than boredom, the rapport and banter between band members as lighthearted as could possibly be expected. Percussionist/hype man Bob Nastanovich filled his role admirably as the spastic foil to Malkmus’s more low-key persona, but Stephen himself was amped as hell all night; reports of his apathy have been greatly exaggerated.
With his other band (The Jicks), Malkmus has gradually given in to his more jammy tendencies, so it was somewhat surprising that the set was lean and tight (um, relatively), not without improv but free of meandering. “The Hexx”, “Frontwards” and “Range Line” (among others) all built ecstatic pinnacles of noise without wasting a strum. This band has always been a bout: Kannberg’s punk rock heart versus Malkmus’s intellectual prog mind, a juxtaposition that worked improbably well in the 90s. Nowadays, as every indie band blends a grab-bag of genres, the genius of Pavement has never been more resonant. These might all be old songs, but half the rock music being made today still sounds pale imitations of ‘em.
The brief bursts of passion in performances of “Unfair” and “She Believes” and the contained but raucous singalong of “Summer Babe” were early highlights. Once they’d pulled off a gloriously unhinged climax of “Stop Breathin’”, every song that followed was another standout. The encores featured Wowee Zowee rarity “Brinx Job” and ended with the furious blast of “Spizzle Trunk”, Malkmus bopping like a school kid, still beaming slyly with the knowledge that he and his band of merry, ageless pranksters had just given this undersold crowd of Tuesday night diehards everything we’d hoped for and more.
Critics can chide Stephen Malkmus in their sleep for his obstinate lack of enthusiasm in fronting his old band; it’s as tired a tack as the group’s slacker legacy demands. Fans of Pavement are just happy that the old tensions between Malkmus and guitarist Scott Kannberg haven’t arisen and sabotaged this reunion tour. Early on in the tour, the band’s languid approach may have resulted in some uninspired shows (AHEM Pitchfork), but there was no trace of laziness at the Pabst Theater on Tuesday night--except in the audience, where that old 90s lethargy was alive and well in the mostly seated and/or motionless crowd.