Having never been a Pavement fan, I’d never even heard of former-frontman Stephen Malkmus until I saw all the rave reviews his album with his new band The Jicks, Real Emotional Trash, received. And it’s a good album, jammy but restrained, long guitar sections mellow, but not boring. So armed with knowledge of that album alone, I checked out the band at Chicago’s Vic Theater.
Opener John Vanderslice has always been a blog and college kid favorite, but seeing him for the second time it beats me as to why. Very little of the crowd even bothered to show up for his set, and they made the right decision. Backed by a three-piece band, he fluctuated between shoegazer and singer-songwriter, failing at both. Lyrics like “electricity is crossing out your family name” were laughably stupid, trying to seem Decemberists-esq vintage, but just coming across as nonsensical. The one redeeming move was, for the last song, the band brought their instruments (or part of them, in the case of the drummer) into the middle of the crowd and played a completely unplugged number. Admittedly, you couldn’t hear anything but the drum unless you were within about five feet of Vanderslice, but it was a cool move regardless.
Malkmus’ set was a step up, but not by all that much. The songs are not traditionally catchy, so onstage they don’t stand up on their own. With an interesting visual performance, or reworked or extended versions, that could have been fine. Unfortuntaly, all there was was the songs, with little interesting to watch onstage, Malkmus just standing around. His guitar-playing was excellent, but the long solos were mostly the same as on the album. On the record the songs are described as jammy, but live that was far from the case. To “jam” implies to experiment, explore, take risks. Copying their recorded counterparts note for note indicates that the jam sound was not authentic, but calculated.
The most interesting part of the show, it turned out, was not Malkmus himself, but drummer Janet Weiss. Famous for her tenure in Sleater-Kinney, she is as exciting a drummer to watch as I’ve seen, playing like the concert like one long drum solo. In other contexts this would be annoying, but this virtuosity added to the loose structures of the material. Was it strictly necessary? Probably not, but the musical passion and creativity was far more enjoyable to watch than anything else onstage.
A set heavy with new material pleased people like me who only knew the new release, but older fans became restless as he played few older songs (six of the first seven songs were new). Inexplicably, one of the few songs he neglected off Trash was Baltimore, by far the best of the bunch. Others, like opener Dragonfly Pie and Hopscotch Willie, got good singalong responses from the audience, rivaling older favorites like (Do Not Feed the) Oyster. Overall, however, though the music was solid, Malkmus presented little reason to see a show and not just stay at home and play the album.
We Can’t Help You
Real Emotional Trash
Vanessa From Queens
Jo Jo’s Jacket
(Do Not Feed the) Oyster
Alright Alright Alright (Velvet Underground cover)
Water and a Seat