Pavement is never quite as good live as they should be. Oh, they're damned entertaining, and Steve Malkmus his cohorts have improved their onstage chops immensely in the last few years, but the ultimate Pavement experience remains their records. Elusive, familiar, infuriating, their singles, ep's and albums have proven to be a virtual goldmine of musical wisecracks, obscure references, and exuberant melodies. Live, while they've refined the ability to build each song dynamically (something they simply had no clue about as recently as 1994), most of the pieces function more as either subtle build-up or energy release, rather than the glorious compositions they are on record.
Which is not to say the Stockton, California's second night in Seattle on their current club tour wasn't fun, because it was; from the opening slo-mo salvo of "Grounded" (from 1995's Wowie Zowie) through much of their new material (from the just-released Brighten the Corners), the fivesome provided ample musical entertainment for the all ages crowd at the sold-out RKCNDY. Steve Malkmus's guitar parts are sharper and cleaner than ever; his feud with primary drummer Steve West didn't seem to keep either member from fulfilling their parts with enthusiasm. (In fact, the rift between the two only surfaced once, right before "Starlings in the Slipstream", when West's botched intro caused SM to threaten him lest he screw up again.) Second drummer/keyboardist/wild man Bob Nastanovich was hilarious as usual, screaming lyrics at the top of his lungs (most effective on the set closing "Unfair", where Bob and SM scream "let's burn the HILLS OF BEVERLY!!!" in finest anti-Golden State mode). Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg played and sang great as usual; his own compositions are moving and ethereal, as evidenced by this show's rendition of "Kennel District" (easily one of the five best Pavement tunes ever). And bassist Mark Ibold kept things anchored from his spot at center stage.
And yet I keep wishing Pavement would explode more. Sure, they've come a long way in the last few years, and they remain an interesting and worthwhile live act, but the essence of Pavement still exists in their records more than it ever could on stage. Bands that truly come alive, who's performances aren't mere adjuncts to their recordings but in fact both inform and transcend their studio counterparts, seem to just come alive more than Pavement ever can. Sure the highlights were great: the new material just sang (Scott's "Passat Dream", the Bacharach-esque "Type Slowly", the single "Stereo), the Slanted and Enchanted classics like "Conduit for Sale!" and "Two States" rocked, the hyper version of "Cut Your Hair" got the crowded club's temperature way up, and the midtempo show closer of their indie anthem "Box Elder" was the perfect way to end the show. But oddly, Pavement remains a band whose records can make you believe in the magic of music, and whose live shows can make you smile without any magic at all.