Few things bring me back to my college days like the snarky, beautiful noise-pop of Pavement. Their records will forever remind me of late night BBQs with a pair of speakers crammed into a window so everyone within 100 yards could hear the album “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.” Or the mornings after, when whomever happened to crash on our floor was forcefully awakened by the salving acoustic guitar intro of “Wowee Zowee.” It was ritual.
I never caught Pavement live back in the day. They had a reputation for being hit-or-miss on tour, possibly influenced by lead singer Stephen Malkmus’ waning interest in the band as their success and regular touring schedule took its toll. But Thursday night — when they brought their first tour together in 10 years to the Ogden — it was nothing but hits.
From the first note of “No Life Singed Her” from their debut record “Slanted and Enchanted,” Malkmus’ wiry, addicting voice made it clear that we were in for a strong showing. Malkmus played his classic P90 Fender Jazzmaster through an Orange brand guitar amp on which, true to his sarcastic nature, he had removed the “O” and moved the “R” so the name read “Anger” instead of “Orange.”
As the band kicked into “Shady Lane” from their album “Brighten the Corners,” thick quilts of pot smoke made their way up from the audience to the stage. Bob Nostanovich, the band’s second drummer/percussionist, screamer/backup vocalist, keyboardist/noise-maker and harmonica player began to dance around, adding a vibrant element to the mostly stationary band.
With the songs “Summer Babe (Winter Version),” “Starlings of the Slipstream,” and “Cut Your Hair,” guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg and bassist Mark Ibold began to loosen up. The theatre was packed with smiling, bobbing heads that sang along to every word. With “Stereo,” “Date with Ikea,” and “Gold Soundz,” it was clear this was not a one-off reunion tour, but rather a full on “best of” Pavement compilation. Add “Grounded,” “Range Life,” “Stop Breathin’,” and “Rattled by the Rush” among others, and no Pavement fan could have asked for more.
The set was full and the band was true to form: crisp and loose. What stood out most, apart from how incredible the band sounded, was how brilliant Malkmus was on guitar. He would move from rhythm pieces into flawless, detailed lead parts, and as the night moved on, sometimes hit notes out of key. After watching him flutter around seamlessly on much more complicated songs, it was clear he was hitting the in-between notes on purpose. It was almost as though to keep himself interested he played very carefully-crafted sloppy guitar, which, in retrospect, explains a big part of Pavement’s sound.
As the guys picked up their instruments for the encore, Malkmus started to play the riff to Nirvana’s “Lithium.” Kannberg thanked the audience for coming out, and as the band prepared to go into the first song on the encore setlist, Malkmus began to sing Cobain’s lyrics. As he came to the chorus, he amped his volume and the crowd began to sing along. The band, not prepared to play this song, could only stand back and watch, save drummer Steve West who jumped in and improvised the beat.
By night’s end, we were treated to a Pavement reunion tour that sounded as good as it had ever been; a superfan’s dream setlist. And, with the improv half-band version of “Lithium,” a glimpse into the tensions between Malkmus and other band members that may have driven them apart ten years ago.
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Jamie White is a Denver writer, musician and producer.
Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.