On the one hand, it’s expected that Stephen Malkmus is as successful & popular today as he is. He fronted nineties alt-favorite Pavement, and in this century/millennium has had a lauded career with Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks. This many years in, he’s still being interviewed by the likes of The New York Times and The New York Post. The 2010 Pavement reunion (QRO live review) was everything that you would’ve wanted from a classic coming back for an encore. People are even interested in his upcoming solo electronic record, Groove Denied.
Yet it’s also kind of surprising that SM & The Jicks are still such a draw, like they were on Friday night, January 25th, at Brooklyn Steel (QRO venue review). It was one of a number of very cold nights in the Big Apple. His initial audience hasn’t been in their twenties for a long time now, and can’t go out as easily. They’d already played two nights in New York just last summer (QRO live review), making this the second visit off of last year’s Sparkle Hard (QRO review). Moreover, The Jicks seem to play jam music for people who would never go see a jam band. Yet Brooklyn Steel was packed for “The Sultan of Slack.”
Of course, things don’t go completely easy. Throughout opener “Kite”, bassist Joanna Bolme was having problems with her equipment, so noticeably distracted that Malkmus could only joke about it. It was her monitor, not main bass amp, so, “It sounds good for [the audience],” which was what was important. Too often precious indie artistes will stop everything in a show if it doesn’t sound perfect to them, even if everything’s fine to the crowd, which makes them look like they’re just stopping things for no reason other than being precious indie artistes. SM & The Jicks are relaxed enough to roll with it, while also being skilled enough to deliver.
And they do have the skill. Jam music is often derided for being self-indulgent, even self-wankery, just showing off musicianship for its own sake, the artist so into his own greatness. But The Jicks aren’t a ‘jam for jam’s sake’ band, but integrating it into their songs. The set was mostly devoted to Sparkle, only every once in a while doing old songs, but didn’t feel like the ‘we only want to play the new songs’ that one so often encounters in veteran acts.
So amid pieces such as easy Sparkle crowd favorite “Bike Lane” (maybe the only happy song ever that references a police shooting), there was Malkmus putting down one of his many guitars (he seemed to change them for each song, though that very well could have just been two in rotation, being re-tuned in between), going to the other side of the stage (the band might have his name, but he doesn’t take center stage) to sing “Freeze the Saints” (from 2005’s Face the Truth) with just guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark on keys. And the band went into the encore break with “Jo Jo’s Jacket” (of off 2001 debut solo record, Stephen Malkmus) and its take on Yul Brynner (which gets a bonus modern spin for referencing the original Westworld).
But the big surprise was in the encore return, when SM & The Jicks did not one, but two Pavement songs. Since going his solo, Jick-y way, Malkmus has had a conflicted relationship with his original legacy, as many going-solo artists do. He was so known for never doing Pavement songs that the one time he did, it made waves. It was only when visiting far off places that Pavement had never played, like Brazil, that they’d actually acquiesce to the request. The Jicks didn’t like hearing requests for songs that weren’t theirs. And then the Pavement reunion seemed to indicate that he had answered all of your demands, and so don’t make any more.
But Malkmus has mellowed in age (he’s no longer the “cool jerk of indie rock” who would bad-mouth Smashing Pumpkins & Stone Temple Pilots). Maybe because no one’s still shouting out requests for Pavement songs now, and that his solo career had lasted well longer than Pavement’s, he & his are game for ‘oldies’. And it’s not like he did an MTV single (from back when MTV played music) such as “Cut Your Hair” or “Range Life”, but instead deeper, sweeter cuts “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “The Hexx”, surprising & delighting the crowd. Indeed, before playing, after first introducing Joanna (“Played the whole set without her bass amp working”), Mike (“Been with him a long time … A shotgun wedding that worked”), and drummer Jake Morris (“If you need help with Instagram, hire him”), Clark introduced Malkmus under his old nineties, MTV/Beavis & Butthead given moniker, “Sultan of Slack,” which SM could only laugh at as an intro to the old songs.
Plus, The Jicks still closed the night with one of their own, “Real Emotional Trash” from the album of the same name (QRO review), including a jam.