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Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Stephen Malkmus, Live in ... Store
I went to my first concert in a million years Saturday. Well, it wasn’t really a concert—it was more that when I wandered down to my local record store, I stumbled on an in-store performance by hip young balladeer Stephen Malkmus, accompanied by his friends the Jicks.

Sonic Boom is a small store, and there were so many people crammed in by the time I arrived that I couldn’t actually see the “stage” at the back. My dislike of crowds made me happiest at the opposite end of the store—near the door where there was still some air and a little bit of room to breathe. Since there was no curtain or lights (there was no Waterloo sunset outside anyway, in fact it was sunny for Seattle), the band just sort of slipped into view. This being an informal event, there was no set list or pre-prepared agenda. They just walked on, tried to make their instruments work, and asked what people would like to hear.

The crowd was either shy or unfamiliar with Malmus’ oeuvre (I’m both—well, certainly the latter anyway), but at last someone yelled out a song title, and they obligingly launched into “Jenny and the Ess-Dog.” It was a quirky rendition, but I’ve since gathered that “quirky” is the Malkmus watch word. Funny little poetic lyrics, spirited and tuneful but not necessarily in-tune singing, and some basic guitar licks that wouldn’t please Bert Weedon. He also did “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster,” one other song that I don’t recall, and a weird low-fi “medley” that I half-recognized as a late-‘70s classic, or perhaps his own facsimile thereof.

I’ve listened to recorded versions of a couple of the songs a few times now, thanks to downloads provided so thoughtfully—and legally—by Amazon and realize that he’s a bit of a tributist. He obviously very influenced by Ray Davies, both in the kind of story songs he writes and in his delivery, but there are also echoes of that little window when punk turned into new wave and still you didn’t have to be able to play very well, but you did have to be sincere. (“Alison”-era Elvis Costello or early Jam in other words.) Some very catchy hooks, too. Unfortunately, Malkmus seems to like the muffled clingy-clangy effect that sounds like it was recorded in an untidy bedroom, and sometimes you can’t make out his lyrics (youth of today, you can’t tell a bloody thing they say), which is pretty key to his “thing.”

Still, it was a fun half-hour, with lots of inane stage chat about Michael Jackson ripping off his moves from Bob Fosse, and references to Pacific Northwest fauna in “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster.” Weirdly enough, they had to finish when the people at the pizza parlor next door complained that the volume was too high. Judging from his affect, I reckon Malkmus kind of enjoyed that—it was like the neighbors complaining that the kid next door was upsetting their dog with his bedroom band practice.