Live Review: Pavement, San Francisco, CA, Sept. 14, 2022

Photo by Paige K. Parsons

“It’s a brand new era, it feels great/It’s a brand new era, but it came too late” —“Newark Wilder,” 1994

The last time I saw Pavement live was in Portland, Ore., in 1999. It would prove to be the band’s final tour, supporting the Terror Twilight album (which to my jaded ears sounded more like a Jicks preview than part of the Pavement lineage, but I digress), and was a moment in the pop life where frontman Stephen Malkmus would notoriously leave a pair of handcuffs dangling from his mic in London as a symbolic representation of what it felt like “to be in a band.” So tension was in the air. The place was packed full of white dudes of a certain vintage (ahem), the band plowed through a workmanlike cover of Creedence Clearwater’s “Sinister Purpose” during the encore, and I remember leaving that night with the distinct feeling that—despite the band’s indisputable greatness, influence and importance—it could very well be Pavement’s last waltz.

Fast forward to 2022. Having reunited once already back in 2010, Pavement—its “classic” lineup fully intact, including guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, bassist Mark Ibold, percussionist/comic relief Bob Nastanovich and drummer Steve West (supplemented by keyboardist Rebecca Cole, formerly of Portland’s the Minders and Wild Flag)—is now several shows into its much-anticipated reunion tour, and while I realize I am conforming to type by saying this: Tonight’s show proved to be well worth the wait.

There’s no new music or album to support. If anything, it’s amazing to behold just how well the band’s very-intentionally-amateurish-Gen-X music has held up over the years. Most of these songs could have been written and released yesterday, which demonstrates just how pervasive and persistent Pavement’s influence has been.

Photo by Corey duBrowa

The band hasn’t gotten materially “better” in the intervening years—they’re still ramshackle, a bit sloppy (one song tonight was basically a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs), not quite as tight as you’d want or expect your favorite band to be, even with the decade-plus break in between taken into account. The Stones at their loosest, but without all the Voodoo Lounge trappings.

The setlist was quite literally a fan-favorite dream machine of both quasi/shoulda-been hits (“Cut Your Hair,” “Major Leagues,” “Range Life”) and deep cuts drawn from all five albums the band released during its decade-long run as the reigning slacker kings of ‘90s indie rock. But it was nothing you’d recognize from radio or barely even from MTV (sorry for the grandpa reference, kids—the network really did play music once). They just weren’t that kinda band. If anything, fans always saw them as the Grateful Dead with indie cred, starring Malkmus as alterna-Jerry Garcia, jamming on some under-heard song or obscure cover to the delight of the home-tapers (now bloggers) in the audience.

But beyond all that, tonight there was no drama, no tantrums, no made-for-Pitchfork moments. It’s clear that the boys still like each other, still enjoy playing these tunes, still love seeing fans geek out on the inclusion of a song as random or deep as 1991’s “Debris Slide” in the setlist.

A friend (who also joined me for the show) and I caught Pavement documentary Slow Century last year when Nastanovich came to town to do some live-audience Q&A afterward, and it was clear, even mid-pandemic, that a reunion was not only possible, but likely. We were entertained by all the ephemera, the other Pavement fans taking their own sentimental journeys down to the ‘90s yard-sale nostalgia lot. Mostly what the film—just like tonight’s show—conjured were the narrow-but-deep array of emotions typically associated with Pavement: understated (possibly: stoned) elation; ironic moments of possibly-deeply-felt-ennui; offhand wordplay and “nothin’ matters and so what if it did” posturing; emotional distance as a foundational element; and chaos/frayed edges as core creative features vs. unintended “bugs” of a haphazard approach to showmanship. So I guess it’s good to know that all those years of therapy have basically landed me squarely among my peer group at a Pavement reunion show.

Photo by Paige K. Parsons

Pavement in 2022 is all of these things, plus the (bonus) addition of age as a smirking acknowledgement that we’ve all moved on since then but, hey, there were some nice moments somewhere in there, and it’s not sinful to dredge ‘em back up again, even if the net of that effort is mostly about padding one’s bank account. (I can hardly blame Pavement for wanting to play a bunch of songs they love for sold-out appreciative audiences—this was the third night in a row at the Masonic in San Francisco—who can afford to pay top dollar for a night out as opposed to their formerly PBR-and-a-vintage-tee discount adventures of the mid-‘90s.) It ain’t “Glory Days,” perhaps more like a wistful farewell being waved as the Pavementmobile makes its way down Shady (Memory) Lane.

You have to marvel at what the rehearsal sessions for these shows must’ve been like, for a band accused of only a passing relationship with a work ethic during its heyday. Songs from Slanted And Enchanted (1992), Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), Wowee Zowee (1995), Brighten The Corners (1997), Terror Twilight (1999) and even a few obscure b-sides dotted the setlist. It was an extraordinary travelogue through the ‘90s, a tour de force of the band’s highs and near misses that exhaustively proves just how phenomenal a songwriter Malkmus really was (and is). Taken as a body of work, I’ll hold the Pavement oeuvre up to not only any of its contemporaries (acts such as Blur, Superchunk, Spoon, Built To Spill, Modest Mouse, Mercury Rev and Sleater-Kinney come to mind) but bands that influenced them before (the Fall, Yo La Tengo) or borrowed from them after (Weezer, Shins, plus an entire cottage industry of “slack” that seemed to spring up in their wake), too. The fact that it all fits something of a neat narrative arc—their scuzz/noise origins, a middle period marked by brushes with the mainstream and gestures meant to push it away, and a late phase that predictably saw Malkmus struggling to reconcile the band’s continued shagginess with his increasingly sophisticated writing and ambitions to more fully realize it—only makes it that much easier to appreciate in retrospect.

As to how it all translated to a live show in 2022? There were moments of sheer transcendence (“Perfume-V,” newly popular b-side “Harness Your Hopes” and the finest version of “Here” I’ve ever heard), others where the song threatened to fall apart right in front of us (“Stereo,” which was completely deconstructed down to its molecular bits)—“classic Pavement” as Kannberg reminded us afterward backstage. There were jokes about Sand Hill Road and Bay Area drug-scoring spots, Malkmus’ fake Eddie Van Halen kicks and ironic tennis-pro/guitar-hero posturing (which couldn’t take away from the fact that he absolutely destroyed on guitar all night long). There was Nastanovich making like the Flava Flav of the indie set, toying with a tambourine, banging arrhythmically on a drum and shouting incongruously during some of the set’s better Malkmus-singing moments. And in the end, there was an audience full of people left with their voices slightly hoarse and their spirits truly lifted after a two-plus-hour excursion through the various brightened corners of Pavement’s otherwise ever-so-slightly-melancholy moods.

Mostly—after navigating the eccentricities and bent curvature of the evening’s 24-song set—Pavement still sounds effortless, like they’re not even trying. You’d be right to proclaim it all some kind of glorified basement rehearsal and then suddenly realize that “Spit On A Stranger” (is that a bite from “Mr. Bojangles” Malkmus has easter egged in there?) might just be one of the craftiest songs you’ve ever heard, with melodies and arrangements that are sneakily some of the best since the Kinks first emerged in the ‘60s. Where did this subtle, seductive song salad come from? Not even S.M.—still looking Greenwich but feeling Stockton, a man Courtney Love once called “the Grace Kelly of rock”—seems to know for sure. And as ever, he’s not telling.

Which essentially sums up Malkmus’ approach to both songwriting and performance: It’s the sonic equivalent of the tag that appears in texts telling people you have “notifications silenced,” an aggressively indifferent affect that has both the capacity to surprise (check his guitar solo on “The Hexx,” which shreds in just as gnarly a fashion as any stoner desert-metalhead might) and yet feels as comfy to the middle-aged indie dudes (and the Reality Bites dudettes) in the audience as their favorite ‘90s-era flannel shirt. It’s the ultimate luxury: I might reply to your text, I might not. I might notice you waving your hands in the air while singing every lyric to “Stop Breathin,” I might just adjust my tremolo pedal. I dunno. Lemme get back to you on that.

As Malkmus once told an interviewer around the time of the band’s first reunion, “Perhaps it’s conceptually better not to get back together. Maybe the Smiths will always have something on us. But everyone knows the real reason they won’t do it is because they hate each other.”

Concept, schmoncept. Tonight’s show was a perfect demonstration of why reunions—not from every band but from certain cherished ones, the kind that clearly don’t mind making some kwan but who will also play fantasy football with each other when they’re not on tour—will always have a market, comprised primarily of suburban ex-indie kids like Jason Bateman’s character in Juno. And me. In my faded Slanted And Enchanted tee.

God bless The Pavement and all ye who sail her. If you loved this band as much as I did back in the day—and still do—I don’t know how you don’t already have tickets for the show nearest you.

—Corey duBrowa