Not to be all #oldguy, but when I was a teenager in the ’90s, music discovery was only for the most devoted. If you wanted to find music that wasn’t on the radio or MTV, you had to know the right people or have the right siblings or, at least, know the right places to look. I’ve written before about how Pearl Jam was a great band to follow if you were interested in expanding your music knowledge because they wore their influences on their sleeves and were keen on highlighting up-and-coming artists that they appreciated. Associations like this were crucial for young people just looking for a way in.
This was how a freshman in high school could get into a band like Pavement. I remember seeing them perform on TV as part of the Tibetan Freedom Concert, alongside artists like Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Radiohead, and the Beastie Boys. It would inspire a trip to Blockbuster Music while in Houston that summer — probably the most pivotal record store visit of my life — where I picked up Radiohead’s OK Computer (I was already a fan of The Bends) and Pavement’s Brighten The Corners. These two albums would alter my musical taste for the coming decades and my love for both bands has never really diminished.
Unfortunately, I got into Pavement too late to see them live (too young for the first Coachella or to make my way into LA to attend concerts on my own), but I was elated when they reunited in 2010, my first year working as a professional music writer. I was able to catch their first American reunion show, a Coachella tune-up in Pomona, and their final one, Matador’s 21st birthday party in Las Vegas. And while I’ll remember both of those shows for how massive the moments felt — especially for a band that couldn’t be more unassuming on record — many at the time noted, particularly towards the tour’s end, that there was a sense that leader Stephen Malkmus was disengaged.
And it’s not completely surprising. Malkmus rarely revisits Pavement material as a solo artist, he’s spoken openly about feeling like he’s outgrown the material, and the band members are hardly the “band of brothers” that many of their longstanding peers claim to be. Where Malkmus can still have a decent career as a musician, the majority of his bandmates returned to normal jobs after Pavement, and a reunion tour where they could play venues bigger than at their height had life-changing implications. It was a ton of pressure for the bandleader, and one he didn’t seem to relish.
Now, as the band commences in their pandemic-delayed second reunion, things appear much different. Sure, the financial implications remain. But witnessing the band’s first show in 12 years at the Fonda in Hollywood this past May, as well as the proper theater show at the Orpheum last week, something was clearly different. Maybe it’s that the stakes are a bit lower. After all, this isn’t a tour playing Coachella and the Hollywood Bowl. They’ve opted instead for friendly spaces like Spain’s Primavera Sound festival and multi-date runs at mid-sized venues. And, a second reunion feels more for the diehards than the casually curious. The audience on these nights wasn’t just friendly and forgiving, they were already won over.
But it also feels like a change has occurred in the attitude of the band. Malkmus, for one, is clearly having… fun? His faux rock star poses are nothing new, but they don’t feel begrudged. Whether he wants to be on stage, singing these songs, we may never know. But as far as anyone can tell, this is five guys — Malkmus, secondary songwriter Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, hypeman/Pavement incarnate Bob Nastanovich, and rhythm section Mark Ibold and Steve West, not to mention new touring keyboardist Rebecca Cole — that are playing equally for the fans and for themselves, to prove that they can still wrestle magic out of these decades-old songs.
Take a look at their recent setlists and you’ll see a band hellbent on honoring their history and diving into the depths of their legend. They’re not only playing the “hits,” but they’ve opened up their songbook to deep cuts not heard on their last reunion tour, and many not played since the original runs for the albums they appeared on. At the Fonda, this meant getting not only the suddenly massive “Harness Your Hopes,” but songs like “Embassy Row,” “Transport Is Arranged,” and “Type Slowly” — all cuts that I fell in love with that summer in 1997 and that the band hadn’t played live since that year. At the Orpheum, they offered “Stop Breathin’” and “We Dance” for the first time since 2010, having managed to play a handful of shows without returning to those classics. The next night, the glorious “Pueblo” was played for the first time since 1996.
Any conflict that Malkmus feels about these songs has faded to reverence, as the band finally seems willing to accept how much this music means to their fans, and how much it could mean to his fellow bandmates if he fully bought in. Malkmus even went as far as to (somewhat jokingly) apologize for lyrical flubs, explaining that at least we “get the gist.” Pavement’s biggest in-band advocate, Nastanovich, was quick to respond: “It’s Pavement, for Christ’s sake.”
And maybe that’s the heart of why these shows were, well, moving. Pavement is a band of notorious slackers, who Beavis once yelled at for not trying, and here they are in their 50s, well, not slacking at all and seeming to try their hardest, performing two-hour sets packed with as many songs as possible. Their faithful fanbase could act their geekiest in this safe space, practicing little interpretive dances and yelling Malkmus’ delightfully nonsensical poetry back at him, with each line somehow striking as genius when plucked out to stand alone. For these nights, Pavement was not only active but thriving, sounding great and embracing the moment. The world felt like a better place because of it.