It's Official: Pavement Reunion Exceeds All Expectations

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Photo: Photograph by Guy Eppel for RollingStone.com

After the glow, the scene, the stage, the set, Pavement’s reunion tour begs the question: Is this the greatest reunion ever? Tonight they play Austin, after hitting Atlanta and the Virgin Free Festival over the weekend, plus five nights in New York last week where they splattered awesome all over the crowd. Even heading into the final shows, after being on the road since March, they keep slipping surprises into the set list, with Stephen Malkmus’ bitchy wit (“This song reminds me of taking mescaline in Central Park on Earth Day”) between guitar excursions like “Fin” that make you suspect Wilco’s decision to take over where Pavement left off might be the wisest decision any band has ever made.

Photos: See live shots from Pavement's Brooklyn reunion show

Did anyone think the Pavement tour would be this good? Stop lying — you know you didn’t. Neither did they, most likely. It could have been perfunctory and grudging, but ever since the first night’s footage hit YouTube back in March, it’s been obvious that Pavement are into it, more than any fan dared hope. No dodgy new songs, no attempt to flog a new record, no aspirations to recreate the past, not even nostalgia: just five confident dudes paying their respects to a few dozen great songs. What the hell went right?

Pavement’s New York shows were the first to be announced, over a year ago, and among the last to be played. Each was different: Sunday was “festive boy noise,” Tuesday was “sentimental boy noise” (see them play “Perfect Depth” and “Fight This Generation” above), Wednesday was “big hippie rain lovefest,” Thursday was “pouty boy noise” and Friday was like watching Secretariat run the Belmont. (29 songs in 2 hours, crikey.) Each show was splendid, with nods to the song selection on Sunday and Friday, the guitar solos on Tuesday, and the thunder and lightning (so showy!) on Wednesday, which gave the show a very special vibe. While they did “Summer Babe” in the rain, I could see all the wet heads in front of me, yet not a single fan opened an umbrella, because nobody wanted to block the rock. (People with umbrellas fled to the back.) The women in front of me had umbrellas in their hands; they just didn’t open them because they didn’t want any wet vinyl between them and the boys onstage. That kind of show.

The tour has inspired a lot of talk about how Pavement were supposedly a dour and grumpy live band back in the day, which is kind of dumb. I caught them on 8/29/91, 10/12/94, and 10/9/97, and the reason I remember the dates is because they were inordinately awesome nights. (I wrote about the first show in almost ridiculous detail in my book Love Is A Mix Tape, so I’ll just add that I have a bootleg to bolster my case.) But they skipped my town on the infamous 1999 tour, which is the only one people talk about now. Malkmus supposedly wore handcuffs at one U.K. show and said, “This is what it’s like to be in a band.”

This story comes up in every account of Pavement, yet suspiciously, nobody got a photo or video. Cameras existed in 1999, so how did this happen? All those English people now claiming they were in the audience to witness this — not a single one said, “Cor blimey, that geezer’s got handcuffs on, I’ll get out me camera and snap a photo in his boatrace and Bob’s your uncle,” or anything like that? English people, either you’re lying or you’re cripplingly polite.

Since they broke up, Pavement have acquired a rep for being emotionally stingy. But that has to seem silly to anyone who was listening to indie rock at the time, because what set these boys apart from the pack is that they really put out. They did not hem and haw, did not stare at the floor. They realized emotional extremes in their music that made other bands sound like chickenshit robots, effortlessly caressing melodic mountaintops others had struggled and strained to reach, hitting goofy rock highs and torpid hippie lows and comic punk asides. Who else turned noise into songs like theirs? Nobody. You think it’s easy, but you’re wrong.

The lyrics were oblique, because Pavement had a great poker face, and Malkmus turned every romantic gesture into a look-away pass. It’s almost like the words were low-affect in order to protect you from all the emotion in the vocals and guitars. Listen to “Gold Soundz” and note how delicately balanced it is — the breathless guitar, the rippling Voice — and how it would just take one hammy line to capsize the whole song. Then, in the final verse, when that hammy line arrives (“So drunk in the August sun, and you’re the kind of girl I like”) it catches your arm, instead of jabbing you in the ribs. That’s not just brilliant Songwriting — it’s brilliant singing and band interaction, which countless groups fumbled trying to replicate.

Pavement’s emotional vividness took all sorts of forms last week, from Malkmus jumping on the drum riser during Tuesday night’s “Kennel District” to his guitar solo during Friday night’s “Date with IKEA.” Bob Nastanovich’s presence defines the term “glad to be there”: having the world’s biggest Pavement fan right on stage does wonders for everyone’s serotonin level. During “We Dance,” Nastanovich often dances with an audience member — Sunday night it was Malkmus’s wife; Friday night it was his own wife. “Sorry, ladies,” Malkmus told the crowd. “That’s Mrs. Nastanovich. Oh, and gentlemen.”

The band was not exactly tight, but crackling with enthusiasm: Mark Ibold’s bobbing head (his other band is Sonic Youth, so no wonder he’s all smiles), Spiral Stairs’s nightly reluctance to leave the stage, Steven West’s drums. (All the guff you’ve heard from old-school indie dudes about how Gary Young was better? Fairy-tale bullshit, I assure you.) It all reminded me of nothing so much as Leonard Cohen’s recent shows. Except faster.

Another surprise about the New York run is they would occasionally mention their dead friends. It was weird because various Pavement songs also remind me of people I miss, but (not being in a band), it hadn’t really dawned on me how Pavement songs also probably remind the guys in Pavement of people they miss. That must be why bands break up. That’s a lot of shared memory to drag around with you. And that might be why reunion tours are so much harder than fans realize.

Tuesday night, they did “Perfect Depth,” for the first time on this tour, and the first time anywhere since 1994 (I looked it up). It’s a personal favorite, from the 1990 Demolition Plot J-7 seven-inch, the EP with the sleeve note, “I am made of blue sky and hard rock and I will live this way forever.” There’s nothing to the song but sentimental boy noise, transformed in this performance into sentimental man noise, as Malkmus strums and sings the melody (fucking beautifully) for whoever out there might recognize it. That turned out to be a surprising number of us, which is why the collective crowd gasp was as moving as the actual performance. The sky was not blue (cloudy and dark, full moon, no stars), the rock was not hard (kinda mellow) and nobody was asking for forever. Just three more minutes of this song.

Earlier: Pavement Stage Brilliant ‘90s Revival in Brooklyn