There's a lazy cliche that's clung to Stephen Malkmus even since the gum-smacked days of the mid-90s, crystallized in that moment when Beavis & Butthead yelled at his former band Pavement to "TRY HARDER" during the video for "Rattled By The Rush." Nearly 20 years later, some writers still trot it out as they dip in and out of Malkmus's now-extensive catalogue, even as his music has completely evolved from mysterious lo-fi sketches to sunshine-drenched West Coast vibes to blue incandescent guitar heroics and back around to focused pop craftsmanship. Just because Malkmus makes it look so very easy doesn't mean he hasn't been trying—and anyone who was at Bowery Ballroom last night to see Malkmus and The Jicks blaze through a goofy, ecstatic 18 song set knows it as well.
Malkmus and The Jicks played the first of two NYC-area shows last night (the second is tonight at Music Hall Of Williamsburg—it's sold out, but you might luck out at the door). This was probably one of the most exuberant Malkmus shows I've attended in several years—based on other fan notes and concert reviews, this tour behind new record Wig Out At Jagbags has been one of his best received with The Jicks in years, and has been filled with setlist surprises, including lots of Pavement covers ("Father To A Sister Of Thought"!) and classic rock covers (ranging from "War Pigs" to "All Apologies" to "Debra").
In reference to revisiting Pavement songs on this tour, Malkmus mentioned to the Washington Post that after pointedly ignoring the Pavement discography during his first decade with The Jicks, he now "feels like those songs are kind of old and classic in a certain way. We play them in the encore. We kind of ridiculously mix them into other really famous songs — like they belong there. We’ll do a Steve Miller song into a Pavement song and then into a Black Sabbath song, as if it just naturally belongs with those other songs."
The Jicks are riding on an arc now, and some of that should be credited to their lineup stability: after losing Janet Weiss prior to the Mirror Traffic tour, Joggers drummer Jake Morris has stepped in, and quickly become the best Malkmus foil since Bob Nastanovich. Morris resembles nothing less than Animal from The Muppets, all exuberance and hair and moving parts; he's rearranged some of the drum parts that predate him ("Out Of Reaches," "Tigers") ever so slightly to his style, and it works like a charm. One of the best moments of the night came during main set closer "Surreal Teenager," as Morris pulled out as many Who-inspired drums tricks are he could for the jubilant climax.
Malkmus seemed a little less aloof than he sometimes comes across, whether he was bantering about horndog French politicians, referencing the demise of Max Fish (he dedicated "Rumble At The Rainbo" to it), or playing perfect lead lines with his guitar behind his head (a trick he likes to pull out more often than you'd imagine). There really are very few contemporary guitar players who imbue their lead lines with as much jagged personality as Malkmus, whether it's the cacophony of "Shibboleth," the silky improvisations in "No One Is," or the gorgeous "J Smoov."
And on highlight "Cinnamon and Lesbians," you can hear what Malkmus is going for in 2014: "Cinnamon" is the Grateful Dead frozen in time circa 1971, teetering on the edge of jamming it out, but holding back. The song feels like a culmination of Malkmus's jam band-period (see: Real Emotional Trash), condensed into three minutes of lyrical guitar breaks.
That tension between sprawling guitar epics and a re-found appreciation for concise pop tunes is maturation in the best sense—but that wouldn't necessarily make for a great live show if The Jicks weren't so much FUN as well. Malkmus has always been that ex-magician in "Trigger Cut" who still knows the tricks. Those tricks, affectations and writerly cliches are just misdirection: Malkmus has been trying this whole time, whether you noticed or not.