It's hard to take Stephen Malkmus too seriously. Heroin-thin and with hair in his eyes, the ex-Pavement frontman was the star of the show Sunday, but he never acted the part.
Indie rock icon Malkmus was comfortable and comedic on the Cat's Cradle's stage. His signature speak-singing delivery and his Philly falsetto were in fine form, and he screeched his slacker yelp whenever he could fit it.
Even though most people in the packed crowd were calling out Pavement song titles, it was hard to be disappointed with Malkmus' solo material. His new songs were already strong, but in the show he twisted his lyrical delivery playfully, tossing the words from his throat in casual carelessness.
Malkmus and his accomplished backing trio, the Jicks, balance their different styles well. "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog" and "Phantasies" were bouncy and bright, while "Trojan Curfew" and "Church on White" were dreamy and languid midtempo numbers -- as slow as Malkmus goes.
Scattered hand-claps, tambourines and keyboards that his Jicks hang on the music never detract from Malkmus' secret aspiration: guitar hero -- more like Eddie Van Halen than Sebadoh. His finger-picking guitar skill is well known, but his indulgent solos have outgrown their humorous placement in his songs; now they're one of the main attractions.
Throughout the show, you always get the feeling that he's just another fan. Under any other circumstances, he'd be in the audience, too. He's just contractually obligated to be on stage and sing.
A professed old-school R.E.M. fan, his encore included an honorary cover of the Athens legends' "Radio Free Europe," and it drew the loudest applause. But the show's most memorable moment was an overblown version of Oasis' hit song "Champagne Supernova." He made up most of the lyrics yet somehow managed to seem as sincere as he was sarcastic.
In a humorous bout of pseudo- Townshend rocking, Malkmus furiously unstrapped his guitar at the end of a song, grabbed it by the neck and smashed it to the floor.
But the blow never connected. That would've been too serious.
That's the party line on Malkmus -- it's never clear where the joke stops or who besides him is in on it. His slacker songs are clever and catchy, but if you're looking for life lessons, look elsewhere. All what's really obvious with him is that he's having infectious fun, playing not just his instrument but the crowd as well.
The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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