Well, here I am: Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, NY, a place better equipped for a 1930s vaudeville than your stoner roommate in college’s favorite band, Pavement. Originally one of the five “Wonder Theatres” (ornate movie palaces built by Loews Theatres Incorporated between 1929 and 1930 with the intention of establishing New York’s preeminence in film exhibition), Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue first closed in 1977 following a screening of the fictionalized biography Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth. It stayed dormant for decades until the city renovated it in the 2010s, restoring Harold W. Rambusch’s interior design to its original lavish appearance. Diana Ross officially rechristened the nü-Kings as a performance space in early 2015, playing a show that The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica described as “succinct and purposeful.”
Now, Kings Theatre resides across the street from a Taco Bell Cantina, a tricked-out spin on the OG Taco Bell with booze-y Baja Blasts, and right around the corner from a Spanish Pentecostal church.
I’m here to see Pavement for four nights, September 30 through October 3, on their second reunion tour. Their first was back in 2010, because every band needs to come back from the dead multiple times—but only when the getting’s good. I’m excited to see them, but even more excited to deliver some roving-eye scene journalism, if every Pavement fan in and around Brooklyn constitutes “a scene.”
Upon entry, I see multiple people who look like dead ringers for Stephen Malkmus as well as older, whiter versions of myself. In line for the bathroom, I spot a guy wearing a “Listen To Harvey Danger” t-shirt and overhear another telling his friend, “I don’t think Ween really swears…” His hell must be bar room karaoke that never has “Flagpole Sitta.”
If it isn’t clear yet: I am one of them. A lifelong Pavement student. To the degree that I was (very easily) tricked into shelling out $50 for “the Ambassador Speakeasy Pass,” an “upgrade” that allows for very slightly expedited entry, private bathrooms, a free drink, a separate merch line, and access to something called “Ambassador Speakeasy Areas.” One boilermaker and a $13 Allagsh White later (“Adulthood is an exercise in paying for marked-up beers at legacy indie shows,” I tell myself,) I’m ready to rock, baby.
Brooklyn’s art-y Water From Your Eyes open the first night’s show promptly at 8:00 p.m., playing what I can only half-endearingly describe as “real '00s-era hipster shit,” like DFA 1979 and a crunchier version of solo Art Garfunkel, though I doubt that was their intention. But Pavement could have very easily booked a lesser ‘90s nostalgia act, like, Mofungo, or something, and I appreciate the decision.
Pavement began an hour later and played a tight two-hour set, taking Beavis and Butthead’s cheeky advice to “try, dammit” seriously. The addition of Rebecca Cole, the former drummer of supergroup Wild Flag, joining on keyboards nicely filled out Brighten the Corners-era songs. But this band has never been one for nuance, and a vintage Colt 45 advertisement loops on a screen above as Pavement plays “Box Elder.” The band comes alive whenever they can improvise: at one point during an extended “Folk Jam,” Malkmus dips into a riff that can only be described as eerily similar to the opening of Phantom Planet’s “California," best known as the theme song to the '00s teen drama, The O.C.
When I leave the theater, I spot a dude taking photos of the Pentecostal church on his iPhone. (“I need low exposure,” he tells his friend.) Minutes later, a mom excitedly asks a group of teens she’s either chaperoned or kidnapped if their parents are Pavement fans. I didn’t hear their response.
But I can guess the answer: yes? Before the show on day two, standing outside the Pavement museum (you read that correctly, it’s a career-spanning collection located in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood, an exhibit curated by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry), I'm speaking with a few friends. They mention that their 20-something coworkers, as well as some friends’ teenage kids are all serious Pavement fans. It’s unclear if this is entirely spurred by the Spotify/TikTok algorithmic success of the formerly minor B-side “Harness Your Hopes,” which has now become their biggest hit and produced a new music video, also directed by Perry and starring the mullet-ed actor from Yellowjackets, Sophie Thatcher. But I imagine it has something to do with it.
“To them, it’s all just classic rock,” one said, aging himself and all of us in one fell swoop. Having been weaned on prototypical classic rock radio, I gravitated towards Pavement-style indie rock as a teen because it was a rebuke to that nerd shit. (Forgive me: Pavement is obviously indebted to the Fall, but I always hear a lo-fi spin on Creedence Clearwater Revival in their choruses.) As I walk around the exhibit, which mixes real archival material and fake memorabilia (Gary Young’s toenail encased in glass; a “Slacker Icon” VMA award; a mocked-up “Think Different” Apple ad campaign featuring Malkmus playing a broom), the obvious hits me like bricks in the chest. Only a band this canonized can produce a David Bowie Is whose central joke is its very existence. This type of codified Gen X irony is the functional equivalent of an overly earnest Boomer tribute to, say, the Rolling Stones. And let’s be clear: neither are cool.
At the gig, a hypnotic instrumental set by the NYC duo 75 Dollar Bill, joined by Georgia Hubley and James McNew of Yo La Tengo, made me wish I had gotten high before the show. Afterward, Pavement played a much looser set than they did the night before, by which I mean there was more sarcastic repartee between the band and the audience. Malkmus made reference to Aaron Judge tying the American League home-run record to scattered boos from the presumably Mets-leaning crowd. (Indie rock is for the jocks.) He cracked wise about the band “huffing Kin,” supermodel Bella Hadid’s nonalcoholic “adaptogenic” beverage, which, according to the Kin Euphorics website, “transforms the world’s oldest social ritual, drinking, into a thoughtful act of taking better care of ourselves.” Somehow, that concept is so counterfeit it transcends its fakeness to become…well, not real, but certainly compelling—in a contemporary, grifters-are-everywhere sense.
If Malkmus is pandering to the crowd, he’s certainly casting a wide net, catering to the sports dads and online teens in equal measure without feeling rehearsed. There’s a productive on-stage tension between the general preparedness of the songs and the group’s nonchalant, “fuck it, we’ll do it live” energy, to the point where I’m relieved when they start slightly messing up.
Before these shows, I last saw Pavement twice in Chicago in 2010, first at Pitchfork Music Festival and second, at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. I was 17 years old and thrilled just to see them (or any live music, really). In hindsight, both shows reeked of dutiful paycheck-cashing, complete with chilly on-stage chemistry. Some of that, admittedly, might've had to do with them playing in large open-air parks. But now, it seems there’s a conscious effort to actually honor high ticket prices instead of simply collecting them, with a show that permits the crowd to lose their shit during “Cut Your Hair” and “Stereo.” The songs sound good, even when they’re sloppy.
I heard a guy tell his friend on the way to the bar, “[Pavement's 1995 album] Wowee Zowee has the best songs to hear live. That’s a fact,” not long after Malkmus clapped for himself following a somewhat muted reception to their rendition of “Grave Architecture.” “Well done, Pavement,” he said sarcastically. “Well done.” Anyone who would find that knowing, sardonic reaction annoying are miles away from the venue.
After the show, at a nearby bar, my buddy Jon regaled me with his thoughts on the previous night’s show. He mentioned that in the summer of 1992, his girlfriend left him for her ex when he was driving her home from a Grateful Dead show. They were both tripping on acid; she spotted her ex-boyfriend’s vehicle at a red light and ditched Jon for him before the light turned green. After she left, he played a tape featuring the Pavement song “Summer Babe” and forged a connection. “[The lyrics] ‘Every time I sit around, I find I’m shot,’” he said. “I lived that shit."
Earlier this year, I came across a Chicago Reader highlighting the teens behind Chicago’s burgeoning current indie scene, and I found it quite moving. It’s nice to read that some kids are finding inspiration from Tortoise and the Clean. The lead band from that profile, Horsegirl, opened Pavement’s third show, playing a short and strong set mostly comprised of songs from their debut LP out on Matador Records. (It’s an appropriate yet on-the-nose label choice considering their sound is like throwing a bunch of ’90s Matador bands into a blender. Well, that, and the fact that Pavement is also signed to Matador.)
Horsegirl’s up-tempo energy, which manifested in vibrant drum breaks and lilting choruses, was easily one of the highlights of the weekend. “Pavement is one of the reasons we started this band,” singer Penelope Lowenstein said.
By the third night of Pavement, my mind inevitably began to wander. I was in the last row of the orchestra, quietly marveling at how well the acoustics sounded so far from the stage. Diana Ross’ succinct, purposeful show probably sounded amazing from the cheap seats.
At one point, I accept through gritted teeth that despite my principled stance against jam bands, the distance between Pavement and Phish is probably shorter than I previously thought. (Almost as if he could hear me, Malkmus snarked about themselves as, “Phishport Convention.”) Considering his penchant for updating the lyrics to “Range Life” with ACAB rhetoric, it’s silly that Malkmus still retains the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots disses in the song. Bob Nastanovich continues to winningly prowl the stage during select songs like a goofball Henry Rollins. (“Bob brings the energy,” perceptively comments one middle-aged sage on his way out.)
At one point, I accept through gritted teeth that despite my principled stance against jam bands, the distance between Pavement and Phish is probably shorter than I previously thought.
I’m exhausted by the final show on Monday. I haven’t slept well, and three nights of drinking have caught up to me. I ponder how many times I actually need to hear “Gold Soundz” live now that Pitchfork no longer considers it the best song of the ‘90s.
Maybe it was because opener Steve Gunn’s accomplished Americana was less sleepy than I expected (the pedal steel guitar certainly helped), or maybe it’s because I was close to the front of the stage, but goddammit, Pavement woke me up. I vibed off the woman behind me soulfully singing along to every song as well as the guy next to me who lost his shit when they played “Father to a Sister of a Thought.” Sometime during their “Free Bird”-esque version of “Fillmore Jive,” I realized that this shit doesn’t have to be complicated. To quote “Cut Your Hair,” songs might mean a lot when they’re bought, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also have miles of style. By the end of four nights, hardly any of it was wasted.