This weekend I spent three days in George, Washington for the Sasquatch! festival. Even though I've been back a few days, I'm still exhausted. I know this is a bit late, but finding the right words to say about Pavement—unquestionably my favorite band—was a little rough as I tried to catch up on lost sleep. It came out sentimental and a bit cheesy, but that's just the way life is sometimes. Thanks to Tyler Kohlhoff for all the rad photos. -Ed.
By Monday night, I was exhausted. My back hurt from sleeping on the ground for three days. My shins were killing me, both a casualty of my terrible feet (I have no arch) and standing up for 12 hours a day. But mostly, I was really hungry—the PB&J sandwich I'd packed was stashed in a backpack I'd given to Tyler, who was off shooting pictures at the Mountain Goats set. So I finally caved in and purchased an $8 lamb gyro, dosed with a mysterious white sauce that was definitely not Tsatsiki and was almost cold to the touch.
When I came back to my seat on the bench, a young kid was sitting there, wide-eyed, taking in the surroundings: The sun starting beginning to set in the East; a woman spinning around in circles; a group of frat boys dressed as superheroes; a drugged-out bro with random bits of orange face paint dotting his beard and nose like he'd gotten lost in a bag of Cheetos. My friend Nick was chatting him up, and it turns out the kid's name was Rafer, he was 15-years-old, and he was with his dad all the way from Nashville, TN on a birthday trip. "What's the best thing you've seen this weekend?" I asked him. The resulting smile was so bright, so wide, that it could have cured just about any form of the blues. He loved the Mayer Hawthorne set. Really dug the Hold Steady. Was pumped for MGMT. And, Rafer couldn't wait to see Neon Indian. "Do you know if it's just him or does he have a band?" he asked me. I felt like I was talking to myself 11 years ago. I told him that I thought the backing band, the one I'd seen at SXSW in March, would probably be there. Then I mentioned that I get to write about music for a living. His response? "That's so cool."
Ya know what? He's totally right. I bring up this story because this weekend I spent four nights and three days up at the Gorge for the Sasquatch! festival feeling like I was 15-years-old all over again. It was at that age, when I was a gangly, awkward, high school freshman, that I fell in love for the first time. It wasn't with a girl, though; it was with a band called Pavement. I first bought Brighten the Corners the year before, probably after seeing the "Stereo" video on 120 Minutes or something. I instantly fell for Stephen Malkmus' deadpan voice, for the chiming, plangent guitars and non-sequiturs and goofy references. The more I read, the the deeper I got. Pavement were just a bunch of average dudes who loved to play Scrabble, watch basketball games, and josh on each other. Cool bands, especially indie rock bands, weren't supposed to like sports. You'd never catch Thurston Moore babbling about catching the end of a Knicks game. Pavement was the band that bridged the gap between the nerds and the jocks, the stoners and prom queens, the losers and the heroes. They weren't slackers; they just knew that playing in a band wasn't a matter of life or death. It was about having fun.
By that point in my life—even though I hardly knew it at the time—I was already on the path to a life as a critic. My best friend Devin was three years older than me, had the coolest dad in the world, and let a shy 7th grade Michael tag along to see all of our favorite bands at the Crystal Ballroom: Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Yo La Tengo. We used to sit in Devin's room pouring over issues of Spin like it was the Bible, devouring every one of Charles Aaron's Singles Columns and listening to Slanted & Enchanted and Odelay and Loveless. But we also played basketball and video games and watched baseball in the summer. I was in a constant battle of which way to lean, of how to fit in with Devin and his friends and with all the kids at school that I secretly admired. It used to be that you had a choice back then: chase popularity by trying out for the team or join the dark side. I didn't want everything to be so black and white, I wanted to find a gray area. A "Shady Lane." I wanted to embrace both sides of my personality. Pavement made it OK to be me.
And then Pavement split up in 2000. It wasn't all that surprising if you were paying attention: Malkmus looked tired and defeated and the band's final album, Terror Twilight, was basically a solo joint. The last tour hit Portland during the summer of '99, and I was on vacation in Bend. I wasn't that bummed because, hey, the band would come back soon. Malkmus even lived in town! It never happened. I saw Malkmus play with the Jicks at least four times since then, even getting a setlist written on a napkin (how fitting) in 2001. Pavement went from being a band I really liked to being THAT band, the one I listened to when things were shitty and things were transcendent and everywhere in between. But I never believed they would get back together.
It didn't really hit me until about 4 pm on Sunday. The Sasquatch! lineup was stacked, and I was debating who I should see next. Cymbals Eat Guitars? Avi Buffalo? I looked at the schedule, and it hit me: Pavement was going on in four hours. MY FAVORITE BAND IN THE WORLD, the one I never got to see as a teenager, the one I got jitters even thinking about. I had to get close. I ran to the mainstage and sat through an entire set by Tegan and Sara. LCD Soundsystem was next, and the band was incredible: seven musicians totally locked in and committed to the groove. To be honest, though, my mind was on Pavement. Singing along to "Drunk Girls" was fun but was just a way to pass the time. When the roadies came out with Pavement's material (look, Bob Nastanovich's keyboard! Malkmus' orange amp!) I got that queasy feeling in my stomach, like I was about to go on a first date or interview for a job. I was nervous. Would they play all the songs I wanted to hear? What if it totally sucked? Then the band ran out and all my fears drifted away.
Mind you, Pavement's set was far from perfect. After opening with an inspired version of "Cut Your Hair" the third song, "Rattled By the Rush," sounded kinda awful. Mark Ibold's bass kept on cutting out from the mix, causing Malkmus to restart the song three times. He was visibly upset at the sound, muttering that it was "pathetic." The between song banter was awkward, with both Bob Nastanovich and Malkmus mentioning that they weren't in Spain anymore.
But when the band was on it was a whole different story: "Summer Babe" and "Here" and "Stop Breathin'" sounded perfectly imperfect, if that makes sense. Malkmus swung his guitar around his neck like it was a fiery sword, venting his spleen at the lord. Spiral Stairs sang "Kennel District" with a mature tone, forgoing the "oh oh ohhhss" for more guitar fuzz. Just seeing Steve West and Spiral Stairs in person, even though they've aged, was thrilling. Until now these guys have only existed in my mind as pictures and words and on the Slow Century DVD. And when they played "Grounded," my favorite song ever written, I looked up to the sky and started to cry. I knew it was going to happen—I even warned all the kids around me—but there's no point holding back the tears when you're that happy.
It's easy for me to get jaded about things these days, to be skeptical about new bands and trends and loves. At a certain point, though, you just have to let it all go and embrace what you really love. I figured that the only people who would be stoked about the Pavement set would be nearing 30, but the amount of kids in "Pavement Ist Rad" shirts crowded around the front of the stage was shocking. I don't think Rafer saw the Pavement set, but it doesn't matter: he got to spend a weekend seeing all his favorite bands for the first time. I know exactly how he felt, because I did the same thing.
My top six non-Pavement sets:
1. The National - Yeah, High Violet is overproduced. But before you start calling the National dad-rock or whatever you have to see these guys live, where they attack every song with an intensity I've rarely seen before. Singer Matt Berninger patrols the stage like a crazy man, drinking white wine from the bottle and yelling "faster!" at the band as he pounds his hand into his fist. "Abel" and "Mr. November" slayed, and "Fake Empire" broke my heart. Easily the best set I saw all weekend.
2. The New Pornographers - OK, so we got to stand behind the stage for this one. But the full lineup was there—even my hero Dan Bejar—and the set was more of a grab bag of greatest hits (The Laws Have Changed! Jackie! Letter From an Occupant!) than a run through of new material. The whole band, including Neko Case, also drank Bud Light onstage, which increases their cool points by one thousand. The New Pornos are bro-proof.
3. LCD Soundsystem - James Murphy and his band absolutely murdered their hour-long set. No down time, very little between song banter, and tons of super jams that sound even better live with a crowd of 15,000 people going ape shit. "Yeah" would have killed me if Pavement wasn't up next.
4. Tune-Yards - You haven't really seen a live show until you witness Merrill Garbus whack, thump, scream, holler, and coo her way through a set of Tune-Yards material. This time she had a bassist with her, but the way she plays ukulele and drums and chants and turns out nothing but total jams is awe-inspiring.
5. Japandroids - Like No Age but without all the experimental noise. The duo supposedly lost all their stuff on the flight to the Gorge, but they killed it, singer Brian King flailing around the stage torturing his guitar as drummer David Prowse beat the shit out of his drums. "Young Hearts Spark Fire" almost sparked a riot on the Yeti Stage.
6. Nurses - It's always a thrill to see a young Portland band play really well on a big stage, and Nurses were no exception. All the new tunes sounded great and all the kids in front of the stage were singing along for most of the set. Aaron Chapman told me backstage that he was feeling pretty sick but you couldn't tell from the watching 'em play, especially on my favorite jam, "So Sweet." Can't wait for the new album.
The 10 types of Sasquatch bros (a Twitter meme killed by bad cell reception):
#1: Socially conscious bro. Talks about hip-hop while waiting to take a piss; really likes the new Talib record.
#2: Williamsburg/Grizzly Bear bro. Feather around the neck, flannel to the heart. Might actually be Grizzly Bear drummer.
#3: Old school bro. Loves to pound Natty Ice at 8 am and chastise you for wearing a shirt.
#4: Passed out bro. Too drunk to fuck.
#5: Where's Waldo bro. Spot him in the crowd for mega bro points.
#6: Amateur guitar bro. Killing Blind Pilot songs since 2009.
#7: Sad face bro. Lost a few too many men in the electro wars; can't remember the name of the chick he met dancing to MGMT.
#8: Face paint bro. It's totally NOT makeup, dude.
#9: Frat bro. Why watch music when you can stay at your tent playing beer bat all day?
#10: Jaded music critic bro. Slowly embracing the change, one neon color at a time.