When the iconic indie-rock forebear Pavement last reunited, for a massive tour in 2010, it was a tale of two bands, depending on when you saw them. At the beginning of the run, the lineup was tighter and mightier than ever, playing Coachella with the grit of a band determined to solidify its legacy while collecting paychecks and playing venues exponentially bigger than those it hit during its initial run. If you saw Pavement at the end of the tour, though, you saw a band going through the same issues that led it to break up in the first place. At the Hollywood Bowl on the second-to-last-night of that run, the tension onstage between Stephen Malkmus and the rest of the band was palpable; it was a miracle they got through that show, not to mention the four that followed it, before calling it quits again, seemingly forever.
All of which is to say, just the fact that the band was all on the same stage for the first time in 12 years at the Fonda in Los Angeles on Monday night would have been a special enough moment for the group’s middle-aged fan base to hold onto. (The Fonda gig was a last-minute warmup for a larger tour that begins with a headlining slot at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona in a couple weeks, before a tour that includes a return to L.A. at the much larger Orpheum for three nights in September.) That the band played a sprawling, rarities-laden set at the small hall was just a bonus for the sold-out crowd, many of whom clearly couldn’t believe their eyes and ears at the beginning of long-retired, shambolic rockers like “Transport Is Arranged” (played for the first time since 1996), “Type Slowly” (not played since ’97, and here jammed out into some heady psychedelia) and “Fame Throwa” (an ultra-deep cut from the band’s debut, “Slanted and Enchanted,” and not touched onstage since ’93).
Of course, more recognizable songs made the setlist as well, like the band’s one bona fide hit during its heyday, “Cut Your Hair,” and the unlikely viral smash “Harness Your Hopes.” The band members’ performances fell squarely into well-worn roles: frontman Stephen Malkmus exuding a sort of casual, throwaway vibe during even the most shreddy guitar-rockers; hypeman/percussionist Bob Nastanovic acting almost as a gregarious foil, occasionally even interrupting Malkmus’s thank yous to get in a few words of his own; drummer Steve West and bassist Mark Ibold veering down frequently complex rhythm shifts with can-you-believe-we’re-riding-this-wave eye rolls, and guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg acting like he was just along for the ride. (Following “Two States,” a song Kannberg sings and has played with various side projects, he said, “Doesn’t that just sound better with this band?”) Touring percussion/keys player Rebecca Cole, a new addition to the group, held her own, hitting the high notes where, ostensibly, Malkmus no longer can and trading winning smiles with Nasanovic.
This is not, and never has been, a band with insane production or dynamics, just six guys (and now gals) playing off-kilter songs in an off-kilter way. But when those songs are so beloved by such a devoted audience, hearing them live again is near-divine; the only question is how long the band itself agrees.