I'll confess my bias: Stephen Malkmus is one of my favorite guitarists of all time. He's a modern-day guitar hero, and not for the usual reasons. He's not as technically proficient as most who fall into that category, but his guitar tone is simply amazing. What he lacks in chops, he more than compensates for in sheer feeling, in emotion. Every note he hits, even when it seems wrong, is exactly right.
At last week's performance at Plush with his band, the Jicks (which saw him sporting a new bowl cut and 'stache), it wasn't difficult to imagine that even a deaf person could pick up what he was getting across simply by watching him; as he plays, his every move echoes what he's playing. He physically emotes the very sounds he coaxes out of his instrument--he's like his own interpretive dancer.
Afterward, he said he was pleased with the performance, and so was everyone I spoke with--rare for a show in which a band is mostly road-testing new, previously unheard songs for their next album. Sure, the set was sprinkled with slightly revamped versions of familiar songs such as "Jo Jo's Jacket," from his eponymous solo debut, and "Pencil Rot," from 2005's brilliant Face the Truth, just to ensure the crowd's interest, but he needn't have worried. Many of the new songs garnered applause equal to the old favorites.
There was "Real Emotional Trash," which began all pretty and melodic, then built into a full-on rocking instrumental passage with spiraling, descending guitar notes; by the time Malkmus began singing again, the vocal melody had changed entirely, with only a sliver of a guitar motif left over from how the song began. "Baltimore" was simultaneously melancholy and sinister, with Malkmus singing, "I'm in love with a soldier from Baltimore," before it launched into a blissed-out noise jam, then tapered off to a quiet, meandering conclusion. (Still working out how exactly to end it, perhaps?)
His crack band sure didn't hurt. Bassist Joanna Bolme and guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark were holdovers from the original Jicks lineup. But the addition of former Sleater-Kinney and current Quasi drummer Janet Weiss proved to be quite a coup. On several songs throughout the night, the rhythm section performed double duty as female backup singers, just the ticket for those songs that required "la la la la"s.