Concert Review: Pavement, Auckland, March 7

Look, we’re all a bit nostalgic for the 1990s these days, right? It’s a cliche, but it’s almost relaxing to recall an era where pop culture’s greatest fear was “selling out” rather than worrying about climate apocalypse, social media overload, misinformation and creeping fascism. It was hardly perfect but we like to imagine it was.

Not every ’90s band is the same. I can’t remember the last time I listened to Pearl Jam, but I put on a Pavement song every week or two at the very least. For a band whose full albums precisely spanned the 1990s, from 1992’s Slanted And Enchanted to 1999’s Terror Twilight, they feel far less bound to their era than others. Pavement returned to New Zealand for a fantastic show at the Civic Theatre last night and reminded us all why they still matter, decades after their final album. 

I saw Pavement play their first reunion tour in 2010 (reviewed on Version 1.0 of my website) and it was marvellous fun, but 13 years on, even though they’ve never put out any new music, they felt even more contemporary somehow – all the angst and weirdness of the last few years just seem to make them more relevant than ever. 

The band were a bit looser and more playful than in 2010, stretching out nicely in extended spacey jams on songs like “Type Slowly” that built on the hazy vibe, with frontman Stephen Malkmus’ spiky guitar solos evoking the late great Tom Verlaine of Television and his own relaxed and sprawling solo albums. 

Pavement have often been misleadingly described as “slacker rock,” including probably by myself at some point, but it occurred to me that lazy label obscures the amiable craftwork behind their songs – earworm nuggets like “Gold Soundz,” “Summer Babe” or the surprising viral hit B-side “Harness Your Hopes” have a tight power pop catchiness at their core. 

Malkmus’ lyrics have always had a charmingly casual quality to them, sounding like a super-relaxed rapper. But no matter how surreal the songs may get with their asides about Geddy Lee’s voice or how sexy Stone Temple Pilots are, Malkmus always managed to sound disarmingly sincere. “I’m an island of such great complexity,” he sings in one of my top 10 Pavement songs, “Shady Lane,” and the key is he never makes that seem like hard work. 

They had the blissful upbeat tunes like “Cut Your Hair” and “Stereo,” but there’s always been a gently melancholy core to the band, too, a quality which helps their music endure in numbers like “Here” or “Stop Breathing.” I’ve listened to my favourite of their albums, 1997’s Brighten The Corners, about a zillion times and still manage to come away with new things from each song. 

Last week I had the pleasure of “writing up” – as they say in the biz – an interview Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich gave to Radio New Zealand’s Music 101 before their show, talking about how NZ’s classic Flying Nun bands like The Clean and Chris Knox influenced their sound. Maybe that’s why they sounded faintly alien in the flannel 1990s. They hailed from Stockton, California, and were an ordinary-looking group of dudes, but at their core Pavement were inspired more by bands like Can and The Fall than KISS and Led Zeppelin. They have always been a rather unique brew of American casual and avant-garde surrealism. 

Everyone seemed to have a different favourite song last night, as Pavement dipped between their “hits” and more obscure numbers. That’s kind of the beauty of their work – it’s whatever you want it to be.

I’m sorry if I ever called them slacker rock – they’re their own beast, really. Maybe it’s the dream of the 1990s, hazy and irresistible like that summer babe in the distance, unforgettable and you’ve always just missed her. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: