Although the free t-shirt read "Who the fuck is Stephen Malkmus," it was clear the sold-out crowd on hand at New York's Bowery Ballroom last night (Jan. 25) knew the answer. ?

Although the free t-shirt read "Who the fuck is Stephen Malkmus," it was clear the sold-out crowd on hand at New York's Bowery Ballroom last night (Jan. 25) knew the answer. After all, the ex-Pavement frontman was making his proper public debut with his new backing band, affectionately dubbed the Jicks. And where better than in front of New York's indie rock militia to test out the material set to appear on Malkmus' self-titled Matador album, due Feb. 13?



Backed by drummer John Moen, bassist Joanna Bolme, and guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark, Malkmus also trotted out, Yoko-style, his comely girlfriend Heather to sing backing vocals and shake the occasional maraca or tambourine. In this way, she more or less duplicated Bob Nastanovich's role as Pavement's on-stage auxiliary noisemaker, but minus his most annoying tendencies (foremost among them: off-key shouting).



Malkmus and company sound darn tight on record, but for portions of the show, they seemed to get by on fumes. Because Clark only played guitar on a handful of tracks, the sound was often thin when it needed to be much fuller, and there was an amusingly ramshackle pace to the songs.



But Malkmus compensated with his trademark bizarre enunciations and whimsical subject matter, from the head-nodding Yul Brynner ode "Jo Jo's Jacket" to the super-catchy hippie love story "Jenny And The Ess Dog" and the ancient times travelogue "Trojan Curfew."



Musically, Bolme anchored the group with her prominent bass lines, allowing Malkmus' guitar solos to come to the forefront on "Church On White," which was presented in a much more muscular fashion than its studio version. True to Pavement's usual onstage form, Malkmus -- his moppish bangs covering his eyes -- took frequent tuning breaks. But his between-song banter was limited to fending off requests for his old band's material (none of which was played) and a few non-sequiturs, such as strumming the start-up music to Microsoft's Windows operating system.



All but one of the new record's 12 songs were played (the lone exception: mellow album closer "Deado"), and the set was padded with some strange covers, including Fairport Convention's "Tale In Hard Time." The band seemed to really catch fire as the set wound down with "Trojan Curfew," and the 90-second burst of energy "Troubbble." That pick-me-up continued on to the encore, which found the quartet jamming furiously on an oldie from Portland punk legends the Wipers.



Some have already bemoaned the forthcoming set's higher quotient of silliness as compared to more affecting material from Pavement's early days. Others are applauding it for its pure pop pleasures. Whatever the consensus, there was no doubt Malkmus and his mates were enjoying themselves, in what was more or less a warm-up for their pending European and North American tours. Odds are, those gigs will be just as unpredictable as this one.



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