Occasionally, I will bestir my ass and actually attend a “publick eventory,” which I believe is the name given generally to concerts, colloquia, and large-scale demonstrations of industrial goods and the like, to which anyone who can buy a ticket is allowed admission. Last night, for example, I went to the Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks/John Vanderslice concert at the Pabst Theater.
I must state, though, that I appear to be violating an agreement by talking about this show at all. On the back of my ticket, in 3-point type, it is clearly stated that “The holder of this ticket is…subject to the terms and conditions set forth herein [and] acknowledges and agrees that…the holder is not allowed to transmit or aid in transmitting any information about the Event, including, but not limited to, any account, description, picture, video, audio, reproduction or other information concerning the Event (including pre and post Event activities)…” Damn – apparently by purchasing this ticket I also can’t talk about anything that happened before or after the Event, thereby erasing my entire life from the annals of our times.
Remember this, next time you think they’re all paranoid when they say that The Man is trying to shut us down.
Anyway: I’ve been a fan of Vanderslice’s music since his first solo album Mass Suicide Occult Figurines from 2000 (he previously released three albums in the latter half of the 1990s as main songwriter for the band MK Ultra), so I was pleased he was opening for Malkmus. Vanderslice took the stage with a small band, a keyboardist (who played the basslines and added vocal harmony as well) and a drummer (who, Vanderslice noted, also triggered various synthesizer effects on occasion). In recent interviews Vanderslice has spoken of shifting away from the acoustic backdrops forming the basis for most the songs on his last two albums, and so “White Dove,” for example, was rearranged with a much more percussive attack, featuring loud electric guitar. Still, his live arrangements last night gave prominent placement to keyboard textures, particularly an electric piano that was frequently treated with various echoes and signal-processing devices. He and his band gave a solid, if slightly tentative, series of performances (it was, he mentioned, only the second show of the tour). Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s met Vanderslice in person says the same thing: he’s one of the nicest people they’ve met. I wasn’t feeling sociable and so didn’t try to chat after the show, but his ease with the crowd demonstrated a sense of generosity, particularly in his last song, when he and his band clambered down into the pit area in front of the stage and performed acoustically, with his keyboardist on a button accordion of some type and his drummer carrying a single tom from his kit. And by “acoustically” I mean completely unmic’d – which is to say, we couldn’t really hear him from our seats. (It was general admission, but the Pabst’s rows are very narrow, and moving around was awkward, in that you’d basically be sticking yourself in other people’s faces to do so.)
After a brief intermission, Stephen Malkmus ambled onto stage, shortly followed by the Jicks – and after a few jokes and comments, the band launched into “Dragonfly Pie,” the opening track from Real Emotional Trash. Anyone who’s followed Malkmus’s career since Pavement’s end knows that Malkmus has become increasingly interested in long, somewhat ambling songs – but contrary to the usual description, he actually does very little “noodling” or “jamming.” The songs are tightly – if complexly and lengthily – structured, and when he does solo, he rarely takes more than eight or sixteen bars before moving on to the next section of the song. More importantly, his music now seems comfortably lived in: as brilliant as Pavement was, there was a certain distance to their material, and toward the end of their career it seemed as if the band was uncertain of its direction (unsurprising, given the band’s eventual breakup). Still, it’s true that the song structures are rather digressive. Luckily, he and the Jicks can play – especially drummer Janet Weiss (late of Sleater-Kinney and Quasi), who was impressive both in the background and when the songs gave her room to play out.
Between songs Malkmus dealt with the sometimes extended tuning times by bantering with the crowd and cracking jokes (such as bemoaning the fact the band isn’t wealthy enough to afford a guitar tech to tune guitars for them). About those long songs: as recorded they sometimes drag, at least to some listeners; live, that isn’t a problem. “Real Emotional Trash,” for example, is the longest song Malkmus has recorded so far – and live, it earned every minute of its various and extended sections, building to a ferocious climax led by Weiss’s pounding toms. My suggestion to folks who find his recent songs too long is to hear them played live – although Malkmus is clearly the leader and, obviously, the songwriter, this is truly a band – and one of the better ones of its kind I’ve heard (to name two apt comparisons, Television and the Soft Boys, in terms of dueling guitars). Another piece of testimony to Malkmus’s songwriting prowess: although going into the concert I felt I didn’t really know the new album that well, having only been able to listen to a handful of times, in fact I recognized most of the songs nearly as soon as they began, if not by title by sound.
Here are two songs not played last night: from a recording of a 2003 concert, a Vanderslice song from his first album, “Speed Lab” – and from Malkmus, a version of “Pencil Rot” from his previous album with the Jicks, Face the Truth: