The microphone wasn”t grounded and it shocked Stephen Malkmus as he took the stage at the Kalamazoo State Theatre on Saturday. When fixed, he stepped back to the microphone and mumbled, “It seems like, here in Michigan, a lot of bands die from electrocution,” then added with his characteristic smirk, “because they rock so hard.” This was an ironic opening to a performance that was more like a jam session at the local community center than a big-budget rock show.
Malkmus and his new band, The Jicks, went through 12 songs. That gave them the opportunity to cover the majority of the tunes from their debut, self-titled album and try out several new songs, all of which were clearly still in developmental stages. “This one doesn”t have a name yet,” confessed Malkmus, as his band kicked into one of the new songs. One got the impression that Malkmus and The Jicks are still a work in progress and that they are taking their current shows as an opportunity to work out the kinks.
The Jicks are already a much different creature than Malkmus” old band, Pavement. On Pavement”s last tour, Malkmus appeared on stage as a musician very near his breaking point. He rarely smiled or spoke, looked disheveled and nearly stood off-stage when the band played songs that its other guitarist, Spiral Stairs, had written.
On Saturday, it seemed like an enormous weight was taken off of Malkmus” shoulders. He came on stage, sharply dressed in a white button down shirt and blue blazer, and let his madcap sense of humor and effortless charm do the work for him. The result was an extraordinarily intimate show. Malkmus responded regularly to calls from the audience with his trademark sarcastic wit, ignoring only those who called for old Pavement songs. When someone requested dancers on stage, he replied, “Sure, I never discourage dancing except at funerals and math tests.” Then the band kicked into a cowbell-heavy version of “The Hook.”
Sadly, it seems that Malkmus is in no immediate danger of being electrocuted for “rocking too hard.” As a band, The Jicks lack the sonic power, intensity and tightness that Pavement once had, and Malkmus himself has slowed down in the last few years. His new songs are more lyrically based than ever and many did not translate well on stage, though the great ballads, “Church On White” and “Trojan Curfew” still hit home. Malkmus has lost none of his chops. His wicked lead guitar licks still have the capacity to be oddly quirky and beautiful at the same time.
What made the show so enjoyable was the intimacy between performer and audience. When Malkmus came back to deadpan a medley of Radiohead”s “High and Dry” and Sheryl Crow”s “If It Makes You Happy” for an encore, it was clear that everyone involved was having a great time.