Stephen Malkmus’ tenure in a popular 1990s band fades further into the past, and his four solo albums don’t bring much that’s new to music, but there are enough screaming women in Austin to guarantee his live success there on future trips.The first shout of “I love you Stephen!” at La Zona Rosa on Sunday, April 20th came when Malkmus was only a shadowy figure standing on the ground behind the stage. He received it with a funny gesture of reciprocity, but the next fifty such cries over the course of the show mostly fell flat.
Backed by drummer Janet Weiss, bassist Joanna Bolme, and Mike Clark on guitar and keyboards, Malkmus opened with “Baby C’mon”. Like the rest of the louder, more driving numbers, it came off strong. Throughout the set, the Jicks tightened up as the beat got faster, and Malkmus’ playing and Weiss’s drumming in particular showed more energy.
Malkmus stuck with his white Jazzmaster for most of the night, which suited his half-chords, half-leads style. He went acoustic for a couple songs mid-set, with Clark still playing electric. When he set the acoustic down, he gave a duct-taped Les Paul Goldtop its only showing of the night with “Dark Wave”, the night’s most energetic song on account of his ferocious rhythm playing and the band’s tightness.
There was plenty of sloppiness, too, but it wasn’t without humor. A couple tunes took more than one try to get started, and there were a few long, long gaps between songs. For better and worse, the band was also chatty. They were personable and funny when playing off of each other, not least because of the offbeat, tuneless rim-shots they improvised. But their exchanges with the crowd were boring, maybe because of the adoring fan base. Malkmus could barely open his mouth without sending the crowd into convulsions. His casual remark of “It’s pretty bright” when looking at the spotlights got at least a hundred laughs. In another embarrassing turn a few minutes later, he tried on a Texas accent to tell an anti-smoking anecdote. At least the groupie heckles continued long enough for Malkmus to deliver a good rejoinder to all the ‘I love you’s: “I can hear you, but I can’t see you.”
The band didn’t fare well on the slower numbers. Their looseness made the long jams disorganized and without purpose. It didn’t help that Weiss’s drumming was buried in the mix, and you could barely hear her when she wasn’t keeping a hard beat. But sure enough, as the jams accelerated, they pulled together and tightened up. “Baltimore,” from the Jicks’ new album Real Emotional Trash (QRO review), was one of the highlights. There, the jamming sustained the song’s energy, in no small part due to Weiss’s wild drumming. It’s also just a good song. Malkmus’ lyrical sensibility and delivery have always made him stand out, and his better lines really add some character to his music. “Wicked Wanda,” the last tune before the encore, was also strong. Backing vocals from Bolme and Weiss helped Malkmus at many points.
Malkmus put an end to the many calls for “Church On White” and “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” mid-set by acknowledging them with “Those are good encore songs.” Sure enough, they started the encore with a tender reading of “Church On White” and closed with an extended jam on “Animal Midnight.” Then, in spite of or due to the set’s mild sloppiness, the band’s chatter, and the omission of a few popular singles, about 700 people filed out, seeming to have gotten what they came for.