Stephen Malkmus comes to the Jefferson

If indie rock bands were investments, then Charlottesville would be sitting pretty on its ’90s portfolio, which includes such high-yielding cultural assets as Yo La Tengo’s James McNew, David Berman of Silver Jews and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. We provided them with Fourteenth Street basements to practice in, a college radio station to spin records at and a healthy array of hole-in-the-wall venues to play, and all we ask now is that they keep us in mind when planning a North American tour.

If indie bands actually are investments, then the former members of Pavement cashed in on theirs last year, with a run of reunion shows that stood as a testament to the strange magnetism of their digressive, fuzzed-out, ear-wormy songs. And though Pavement played in town often in the ’90s, Charlottesville fans now had to hit the road to relive their glory days or catch up on what they were too young to experience. Not that we had any real claim to a hometown show—Malkmus and bandmate Bob Nastanovich went to UVA in the ’80s, and Pavement was formed in California—but our collection of huge venues was there for something, right?

So it felt like a long time coming when Malkmus fans crowded into the Jefferson Friday night to hear him play with the Jicks, his band since 2000, which just released its fifth album, Mirror Traffic. After the house lights went down, a recorded introduction of Robert Lowell reading "Old Flame" was barely audible over the cheering: "Poor ghost, old love, speak / with your old voice / of flaming insight / that kept us awake all night." A smiling Malkmus strolled in with his bandmates, strummed a few chords and turned off his cellphone.

Stephen Malmus and Jicks bassist Joanna Bolme.

"Stick Figures in Love" was first up, with all the rigidness of structure and lightness of tone that fans have come to expect from a contemporary Malkmus song. He’s eased off of the complex, drawn-out riffing of 2008’s Real Emotional Trash, and the live result feels a lot less claustrophobic than the Jicks’ previous efforts. Quick-and-dirty songs like “Tigers” and “Senator” don’t show it, but heard live, much of the material on Mirror Traffic finally feels roomy enough to accommodate Malkmus’, guitar solos and all. “The band is smooth,” said local teacher and musician David Baker Benson, during “No One Is.” “This is what Pavement was trying to do in 1996." 

"Stick Figures in Love"

Given the songs Malkmus’ must have heard as a kid, and the wailing Thin Lizzy riffs on “Forever 28,” perhaps a late-set Grateful Dead cover should have come as less of a surprise. Somehow, this crunchy version of “Deal” seemed right at home in a Jicks set, from a Malkmus who cares a lot more about shredding than trying to one-up his younger self.

Other pleasant surprises included an appearance by Pavement drummer Steve West, who came out to caper and sing along during a “Real Emotional Trash”/”LA Woman” medley, and an extemporized song by Malkmus about the time that the Dave Matthews tour bus voided the contents of its waste tank on a bridge in Chicago. A challenge from one favorite son to another—what better small town nod could one ask for?

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