Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks with Holy Sons at Royale in Boston on Saturday (September 24, 2011).
The last time Steve Malkmus took stage in Boston, he stared out into a cavernous arena, an improbable vantage point to the scruffy little lo-fi indie rock band who could. Of course, the distance of years (aka nostalgia) makes the heart grow fonder, and for a fair bit of the people who filed into Agganis Arena that night, it was a chance to glimpse the past they'd never experienced first-hand. Now that the Pavement reunion is over, and a new Jicks record is out, the touring circuit for Malkmus and friends looks a bit cozier. Fearful of early reports of half-hearted turnouts, despite the ungodly early show time (the band was on stage at 8 and done by 9:20, in order for the club to cater to a Saturday night dance crowd), the Boston faithful filled the room nicely, in anticipation of what could be the best Jicks record to date, the newly-released Mirror Traffic.
With ex-Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss out of the band and concentrating on Wild Flag (Malkmus kindly noted that tonight was her birthday, so obviously there's no hard feelings for her defection), replacement Jake Morris likely had enough to just to get caught up with the Mirror Traffic playbook. Coupled with a hard curfew looming at a time where normally they wouldn't even have started playing, it was no surprise that most of the set was composed of Mirror Traffic songs. Malkmus is pretty well known for being smirkingly inscrutable, and opening the set with the Japanese-only song "Polvo" (which sounded pretty close to that particular name-checked band's signature sound) was just about on mark for expectations. The upbeat tempo of "Forever 28" yielded to a classic Malkmus chorus breakdown (and referenced the jaunty swing of Pavement's "Carrot Rope"), and most songs stuck to the somewhat concise pop format, not the long and drawn out intricacies of some of the older works. Tightly focused pop a la "Stick Figures In Love" and it's perfectly fuzzed out, sprightly guitar lines were the norm, and another clear indicator that Malkmus has worn out some grooves to the various Kilgour brothers records he undoubtedly owns.
The regular set ended with the guitar tour de force of "1% of One", which underscored the implausibility of Malkmus becoming some latter-day John McLaughlin after starting his career playing dunted guitar on tracks like "Spizzle Trunk" or "Recorder Grot." Pretty remarkable. Just as equal an ingredient is humor, and the encore started with Malkmus getting some ice tossed at him after he dedicated the first song of the encore to the Buffalo Bills, the next opponent of the New England Patriots (Malkmus is an avowed sports fan, and the seeds of the Pavement reunion started with Nastanovich sending Malkmus messages via their fantasy baseball league). Playfully shrugging it off and saying that one could dedicate a song to a sacrificial lamb (the Patriots were later upset by the Bills, giving them their first victory since 2003 over New England...so much for Malkmus' prognostication skills), the band shuddered straight into the '70s MOR-ness of "Brandy" from Looking Glass. If there's one constant with Malkmus, it's that he is capable of laying down some smarm at a moment's notice, and it's generally well received.
Holy Sons opened this show, and showed yet another facet to leader Emil Amos' musical vision. Best known for his work in the psych-stew of Grails, or as the current drummer for mantra-metal Om, he brings a melancholy detachment to his solo work. Normally it's a true one man job, with all the focus and attention to getting it just how it sounds in Amos' head but for this tour with fellow Rose City citizen Malkmus, Amos has assembled a four piece band whose sympathetic playing is apparent from the start. It helps when two of the members (Jesse Bates, Ash Black Bufflo) became adjunct members of the touring Grails lineup this year. The Holy Sons sound was a dark, plaintive journey to the shadows of where Pink Floyd psychedelia resided in that post-Barrett/pre-Gilmour transition, and Amos' vocals sounded similar to Jason Molina's at times. Despite hearing the Black Flag song "Nervous Breakdown" hundreds of times, I was unprepared to identify this as the starting track, and that underscores what a versatile beast Holy Sons is. The ending "Gnostic Device" collapsed in a riotous clash of guitar strings skidding across cymbal edges. If a Jicks ticket is in your wallet, don't miss the rare chance to also see Holy Sons.