Pavement made a triumphant return last night, more than 10 years after splitting.
The band is warming up for its September shows in New York’s Central Park, which sold out in minutes. Yesterday’s London O2 Brixton Academy concert gives a taste of what to expect.
The five-piece group formed in California in 1989 and broke up in 1999 after becoming one of the decade’s most influential indie acts. It defines cult music with a dedicated following similar to the Grateful Dead and Phish.
For the capacity crowd, the show is like meeting an old lover, reviewing those irritating quirks and realizing that the flame burns stronger than ever. Pavement plays two hours of greatest hits and obscurities.
It was never the easiest of alternative bands, with lo-fi recording and wrong-note riffs limiting mainstream appeal, while winning fans such as Blur guitarist Graham Coxon.
Last night was the first of four sold-out dates. The tour continues through Europe and the U.S. during the summer.
Songs are interrupted with blasts of fuzzy guitar noise and deranged shouting from percussionist Bob Nastanovich. Loose rhythms, bandied between Nastanovich and drummer Steve West, shuffle out of kilter. The band, in jeans and T-shirts, bobble along amiably.
“In the Mouth a Desert” still turns a schoolboy mistake on the riff into something gorgeous. “Summer Babe” balances gentle sentiment with a heavy wooze of distortion, the sound of sunny afternoons happily blurred by cider.
Energetic songs like “Box Elder” and “Trigger Cut” provide Pavement an opportunity to goof around as the audience breaks into a healthy sweat. Singer-songwriter Stephen Malkmus perfects the pop choruses of “Stereo” and “Cut Your Hair.”
There remain drawbacks. Songs are unpolished, lyrics opaque. Worse, the band isn’t recording anything new. Last night, Pavement rekindled a love affair destined to go nowhere.
Rating: *** ½.
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(Robert Heller is a freelance music critic who also writes for Bloomberg. The opinions expressed are his own.)