A few side streets from Liverpool city centre, among the old converted warehouses and cobblestone alleyways, is the Kazimier, a 500-capacity club and music venue. The entrance is nondescript and easily mistaken for the back door of a restaurant kitchen.
But this evening ex-Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus and his band, The Jicks, drop in as part of their European tour. How very typical of Malkmus’ underground origins; the venue itself downplays the visit of one of America’s most important songwriters.
Stepping through the threshold that evening the smell of incense fills my nostrils, instantly reminding me of hippies with dangly earrings. But the crowd is predominantly men with beards clutching their cups of craft beer – this is the hipster’s retreat with a night of entertainment from the king of alternative. As the place steadily fills the condensation trickles from the dark walls.
The band appears not to an elaborate light show, just appreciative applause and woops from the crowd. Malkmus’ wry smile acknowledges their gloriously understated entrance in plain old T-shirts and jeans, announcing they’ve gone “California casual”. Responding to an audience member’s love for California he says, “It has its highs and lows. A lot like Liverpool I’m sure. But why are we talking about lows on a Saturday night?”
They open with new single “Cinnamon and Lesbians”, bristling with happy bar chords and lyrics like “I’ve been tripping my face off since breakfast” and “onward Christian sailors, you smooth talking jack off jailers” that instantly puts smiles on a horde of faces.
The unpredictability of Malkmus’ lyrics has me sniggering into my drink: “Rip into my lemon trifle, I’m too old to play capture the flag” he sings on “Spazz”. Often poignant snippets are short-circuited by the comically banal: “solitary ocean, clean but never pure. I’ve got no more lotion”.
In a year dominated by neo-soul dubstazz and tinkly acoustic pop the band’s new album Wig Out at Jagbags has been a welcome relief, the set relying heavily on its Americana, classic rock-tinted indie. The evening is like a sneaky glance into their rehearsal space; the members are at ease and their songs free from samples or backing tracks.
This is Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks, warts and all, relaxed, unpretentious and pausing in between the rocking out for beers and chat.
Half the night Malkmus has his eyes closed, possibly drunk, stoned or both. He plays guitar like no-one else on the planet, quite literally – flicking and scratching at the strings as if a pesky bug, wearing his Gibson Les Paul Goldtop around his neck proudly like an Olympic medal or hoisted over one shoulder like a school kid’s backpack. His chords are God-given and his deliberately shambolic anti-solos shun the guitar hero limelight crap. Bassist Joanna Bolme casts a watchful eye throughout.
“Chartjunk” is a highlight and gets the audience jiving as if at an old dancehall. “Houston Hades” is another gem, embracing pop and country influences. They’re surely one of the few bands around who would attempt a song in such a sneered upon genre as this. “This place is a bit like prison!” Malkmus says of the cramped surroundings, “except we’re getting paid”.
Requests for Pavement songs were inevitable. Malkmus responds to a call for “Box Elder” by asking if “any of you guys have heard of the Beatles? Because they covered ‘Box Elder’ on their first EP”. However, he does promise a Pavement song before the end of the night and they finish with a sped-up version of “Stereo”, the crowd air drumming and shouting along emphatically. As the band exits the stage they smile fondly, waving as if to an old friend.
But as I exit the Kazimier it’s like stepping out of Narnia into the more familiar territory of city nightlife – women in high heels and boozy men singing merrily.
Tonight was well worth the travel. Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks put their excellent songs on the pedestal first and foremost, doing them justice with a passionate performance. It’s a great feeling to be part of such intimate gigs as the connection between band and crowd is palpable. For all those eagerly awaiting the next Pavement reunion there is much to enjoy from Stephen Malkmus and his fabulous band.