By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
About 20 minutes into Pavement’s set, lead singer and guitarist Stephen Malkmus announced to a crowded Uptown Theater that this was the band’s first time playing in Kansas City, if you don’t count Lollapalooza.
The house roared its appreciation for the underground rock band’s belated return, not just because this was only the second K.C. show in the group’s 20-year history, but because they’d been inactive for half of that time.
Saturday’s show would have been memorable even if it wasn’t a fan’s first time seeing the band, or the first time in a long time, as it was for most. The fervent crowd would have devoured anything their heroes delivered, but were treated to many of the band’s best-loved tunes, including three-quarters of the cuts off Pavement’s new greatest-hits compilation.
Calling any of Pavement’s songs “hits” is a bit misleading. Aside from “Cut Your Hair,” which appropriately featured the only rock star moment of the evening when Malkmus soloed behind is back, the band never had any chart success. In fact, it seems they went out of their way to avoid anything conventional. Their songs are anti-anthems, prone to taking left turns or ending just when they start to get settled.
This doesn’t lend itself to the campfire glow of a great sing-along, but the devoted still found a way to chime in. Numbers with a boisterous chorus like “Stereo” provided a natural opportunity to join in – the response to the line “no big hair” in “Cut My Hair” was especially boisterous. Less traditional songs like “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Loretta’s Scars” still found plenty participating.
Malkmus was angled at stage right, with his fellow guitarist/foil/adversary Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg at the other extreme. Kannberg took the vocals for two numbers, “Date w/ IKEA” and “Kennel District,” which closed the main set. Untethered by a microphone, bass player Mark Ibold – on leave from his current gig with Sonic Youth – roamed the stage, while drummer Steve West and percussionist Bob Nastanovich were positioned slightly off center in the back.
Nastanovich was the band’s secret weapon. Most of the time he was relegated to shaking a tambourine or egg, but would suddenly burst to the front of the stage screaming into the microphone. His pent-up energy was a nice change of pace from Malkmus trademark indifferent, slacker delivery, especially when the two styles were set against each other, as on “Conduit for Sale!”
On the brief instrumental “Heckler Spray,” Nastanovich’ second drum kit added some nice muscle. That set up a run through heavy, riff-based numbers “In the Mouth of Desert” and “Unfair.” Just as they seemed to be building momentum, Malkmus dropped the band to a hush with “Spit on a Stranger,” the prettiest song in their canon and the night’s only offering from their 1999 swan song “Terror Twilight.”
The only visual effects were several strings of large indoor/outdoor lights hung around the stage and into the audience. When lit, the theater felt like an elaborate backyard party. They created an especially jubilant atmosphere during upbeat numbers like “Silence Kit.” At one point between songs, Malkmus tried to toss his guitar up into the lights.
A devout sports fan, Malkmus performed in a Jamal Charles/Chiefs jersey. During the encore, he lamented that Charles now played for the “stupidest coach in the NFL.” Nastanovich echoed this sentiment urging the Chiefs to “fire (head coach Todd) Haley and hire Malkmus.”
The 100-minute set ended with “Range Life,” a playful tune that gently mocks the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots (which seemed a lot more relevant when it came out in 1994). No one wanted to quit, however, so Malkmus veered into the Beatles “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Finally the big sing-along moment arrived. It may have taken longer than expected, but it was well worth the wait.
Setlist: Gold Soundz; Rattled by the Rush; Starlings of the Slipstream; Shady Lane; Date W/ IKEA; Frontwards; Heckler Spray > In the Mouth a Desert; Unfair; Spit on a Stranger; Stereo; Loretta’s Scars; Conduit for Sale!; Shoot the Singer; Silence Kit; Trigger Cut; Grounded; Perfume V; Cut Your Hair; Stop Breathin’; Box Elder; Fight This Generation; Debris Slide; Kennel District. Encore: Here; Lions (Linden); We Dance; Range Life (including Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da).