Something about the phrase “light show” seems incongruous with the stark, no-frills aesthetic that Pavement established for themselves in their heyday. But at Thursday night’s SummerStage concert in Central Park, the multicolored stage lights and crisscrossed arcs of colorful bulbs were just as much a part of the Pavement “show” as the music and the members’ personalities. As many of the reviews have noted since the March 1, 2010 reunion, this incarnation of the band is playing better and more enjoyable shows than they were in the 90s. They’ve embraced, or at least owned up to, their own bigness in a way that weren’t able to then. Now, they’ve got the bright lights and the big stages, and they know how to work them both.
“There’s no lightning tonight, but we’ll try the best we can,” Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg said to the crowd after taking the stage, referencing the heavy thunderstorm that rolled through New York City on Wednesday night. A moment later, Stephen Malkmus began picking at the twinkling opening notes of “Grounded,” kicking off their fourth NYC show in five days, third straight at Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield.
Malkmus, Kannberg, Mark Ibold, Steve West, and Bob Nastanovich played for a solid two hours, working from a setlist that totaled nearly thirty songs, and it was apparent as early as the jump from “Grounded” into “Gold Soundz” that every one of them would be something special. I couldn’t get over the idea that this really was a treat, and many in the crowd around me, including young people who were also middle- and elementary-schoolers when Pavement called it quits in 1999, were similarly excited.
The group jammed through some hits, among them “Date w/ IKEA,” “Stereo,” and “Spit On A Stranger” – the only Terror Twilight track in the otherwise evenly-mixed bunch – until “Loretta’s Scars.” The first of six songs from Slanted and Enchanted to be played, it marked a new leg of the set that included old favorites “Frontwards” and “Shoot The Singer,” from the Watery, Domestic EP, and the mellow, epic Brighten the Corners closer, “Fin.”
With an introduction by Malkmus about why he loves the song and what he did with his “two sacks of money” after it was released, Pavement played “Cut Your Hair,” the best-selling of the singles they released. As if to smother the buzz of that song before anyone got too happy, though, they followed it with a long and chunky rendition of “Fight This Generation.”
“Summer Babe” came soon after, and it sounded like a brand new song, denser and more complex than the version recorded nearly two decades ago. Swirling stage lights threw pastel circles against the dome above the stage and rainbows over the audience. I realized suddenly how totally in control the band had been throughout each song so far, and how comfortable and pleased they all looked. I genuinely got the sense that none of this would have happened if they hadn’t wanted it to and if they didn’t enjoy it all.
They fake-closed with “Range Life” before sliding into an eight-song encore led by “Kennel District.” The encore, even more so than the rest of the show, was proof that Pavement had no interest in riding some avalanche of greatest-hits, which I find admirable; it would have been easy enough for them, and probably just as much fun for us in the crowd. Some of the more left-wing choices were “Our Singer,” “Heckler Spray” (right into “In The Mouth of A Desert”), and a wiry rendition of “We Dance” that they seemed to make up from scratch before hitting its stride and letting it fall apart again. They closed on “Box Elder,” a brashly youthful song that’s still thriving twenty years later.
“I am sick of you guys,” Malkmus said before starting “Frontwards.” It was a joke (hopefully) but it’s also a reminder of the tension and exhaustion that got the best of this band the first time around. Everyone needed a break, and the time away has done them and their music well: they returned as five very grown-up guys, making Pavement work because they want it to.
There are only a handful of shows left on their reunion tour, including one more sold-out night in Central Park. If you’re a fan of Pavement, it will be well worth the effort and money to track down a ticket to any of them.
Date w/ IKEA
Spit On A Stranger
Rattled By The Rush
Shoot The Singer
Cut Your Hair
Fight This Generation
Starlings of the Slipstream
In The Mouth Of A Desert