No one should expect perfection from a Stephen Malkmus show.
Fans at the sold-out Turf Club on Friday looking for an immaculate performance were probably disappointed in the erratic tour kickoff from Malkmus and his band the Jicks for their new album, Sparkle Hard. But amid the kinks to be worked out and various technical issues, there were moments of brilliance that highlighted Malkmus’ songwriting skills and guitar prowess. It's why Pavement fans have remained dedicated supporters of Malkmus since the early ’90s.
Malkmus’ best songs have a loose, untethered appeal, as if they’ll unravel entirely if you examine them too closely. You don't want him to sound overly practiced and perfect. You want him teetering on the edge of the abyss where it could all go horribly wrong, but it remarkably doesn't. His music coheres out of the ether when most songs would break apart into indecipherable fragments, and it thrives despite, or perhaps because of, that unrestrained creative tension.
And that is precisely what Malkmus and the Jicks (bassist Joanna Bolme, drummer Jake Morris, and guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark) delivered during a 90-minute set of relaxed, unfettered jams that were far from flawless but still found their way into your heart and mind. The songs’ hazy imperfections were part of their allure, not a sign that the band was underrehearsed or out of sync. The tunes ultimately hit home; they just took a circuitous route to get there.
The 17-song set drew mainly from Sparkle Hard, with 10 of the album's 11 tracks anchoring the performance, before a surprising, deep Pavement cut ended the night. "Shiggy" was a rambunctious start, while the fuzzed-out ode to both cycling and Freddie Gray, "Bike Lane," kept the strong start going. But the group had to restart "Tigers" after a couple verses, with Malkmus sheepishly explaining, "It doesn't sound like it sounded." But the song’s breezy message of unity eventually rang true: "We are so divided/Let us in/Change is all we need to improve."
While the band sorted out some feedback issues, Bolme asked if anyone went to see the Parquet Courts show at the Fine Line the night before; she and Malkmus both raised their hands. They’d clearly had a couple days to settle in here, taking in a show and doing an in-studio session at the Current. That comfortable, laid-back vibe permeated much of the performance, with Malkmus salvaging a few wayward tunes ("Baltimore," "Houston Hades," "Kite") with scorching, inspired guitar solos. At times it seemed like the verses and choruses were mere afterthoughts for Malkmus, who saved his finest moments for the fiery improvisations that ignited the rest of the set.
"Out of Reaches" featured Malkmus delivering the desperate plea, "I know the tide will turn," which epitomizes the thoughts of all of us who are aching for social and political change. Malkmus strapped on an acoustic guitar for "Brethren," but abandoned the instrument midway through the song, shrugging his shoulders when he handed it to his tour tech as if to say, "Oh well, it was worth a shot." Morris joked, "That's what happens when we're trying to act like Wilco on stage." "Other bands make the fucking acoustic guitar look so easy," Malkmus said with a laugh.
"This song features Kimberly Gordon, a famous race car driver," Malkmus joked as he introduced "Refute." Bolme stood in admirably for the Sonic Youth legend, and the tune gave a spark to the second half of the set. "Malediction" had a resolute message of persistence, with "The road to rejection is better than no road at all" serving as advice to fellow strivers in the crowd while warning us all not to fall into the futile trap of negativity.
"This next one is a piano version of our biggest hit," Malkmus said as a cheeky introduction to "Jenny and the Ess-Dog." "And when I say 'hit,' I don't mean 'Back That Ass Up' or 'No Diggity.'" Clark's keys led the group through the wistful ode about falling out of love with toe rings, Brothers in Arms, and your romantic partner. The crowd even sang the tricky lyrics of the second verse while Malkmus struggled to replace the mic in an uncooperative stand, proving that we were all in this moment together, no matter how many things went awry during the set.
"The distance between Weird Al and that song is too short of a mental stroll," Malkmus said self-deprecatingly of the tune, which in perfect Malkmus form ended up being a low-key highlight of the set even though there were issues to overcome. "Joanna and I drove all the way from Portland to play this song for you," Morris announced before a potent, sprawling rendition of "Witch Mountain Bridge." That was followed by a crunchy, riff-heavy version of "Difficulties" that brought the main set to an emphatic close.
Sadly, the momentum was lost at the start of the encore, with Malkmus riffing on where they were staying in Bloomington as more tech/sound issues were worked out. "Sorry. Thank you," Malkmus said apologetically and appreciatively to the patient packed house, statements that could have served as a credo of the uneven but still rousing set. Eventually the quartet kicked in to "Middle America," one of the standout singles of Sparkle Hard, and the countrified indie anthem clearly resonated in a room located in the capital city of a proud Midwestern state.
The only Pavement song offered up during the set, "No Tan Lines," closed the night down. It was an unexpected choice, with Malkmus dusting off a b-side to the "Shady Lane" single rather than choosing any of the indie anthems that made Pavement such a beloved band for outcasts and underdogs in the ’90s. But the jaunty jam set people's hips swiveling before sending us out in the night reminiscing about evenings when we danced with summer babes and felt like we were going to stay young forever.
Notes about the opener: Portland post-punk quartet Lithics played their first show supporting the Jicks. Their sound is reminiscent of the Fall and Wire, which echoes the influences that colored early Pavement tunes. They traveled a long way for the show, but judging by their taut set, the band didn't show any signs of spending long hours in their tour van, and they made a bunch of new fans in the Twin Cities.
Notes about the merch: Leave it to Stephen Malkmus to up the standard merch game to another level. In addition to a rad throwback T-shirt that just said "Steve" in neon letters next to a goofy pic of the singer, and a tee meant to look like a Russian bootleg shirt, the stand also offered the brilliant cross-marketing of Malk-Netic Poetry, a riff on the Magnetic Poetry series using Malkmus' lyrics on the small magnetic pieces that will show the indie set that you are the real deal when they go into your fridge for a craft sour beer of the moment.
Overheard in the crowd: "I like getting drunk with you, Erik."
Out of Reaches
Jenny and the Ess-Dog
Witch Mountain Bridge
No Tan Lines (Pavement cover)