The sun dipped behind New Jersey, and the shade gave way to to Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks onstage at the 2015 4Knots Music Festival. Twenty minutes before, the Chicagoan rockers Twin Peaks had just capped off what had been a marathon of garage sets over the course of the afternoon. Malkmus approved, giving props onstage as well on Twitter (“Twin Peaks the band is fuckin rad today,” he shared). but now it was dusk, and this called for a more subdued vein of rock ‘n’ roll. After a balmy afternoon of trading places under the sun and taking cover, these indie rock titans couldn’t have arrived at a more perfect time.
In the pre-Jicks Nineties, Malkmus Pavement, the hugely influential and quintessential indie rock bands. As the decade ended, so did the band, but Malkmus quickly got back to work and released his debut self-titled solo album in 2001. Yet after six albums with the Jicks, the success of his former band continues to linger. “It would’ve been hard for the Jicks to outdo Pavement,” Malkmus told the Voice in the weeks leading up to 4Knots. “Someone like Björk, she outdid the Sugarcubes, but she’s a bit of a different level than me.” But the place where he’s currently at in his career is perfectly fine. Malkmus onstage is better than any artist-inspired MoMA exhibit.
Malkmus and the Jicks opened their set with “Senator” off the Beck-produced, 2011 LP Mirror Traffic. As he stacked his words on top of one another with his signature lyrical design – where the coherent lines carry the blur to form an imaginative collage, a la “The toxin’s American made/Weapons-class gray sludge for migrants” from “Senator” – the Jicks were directly behind with tight crashes and controlled feedback. Malkmus’ right-hand man Mike Clark switched between guitar and keyboard, occasionally casting glares into the crowd with whimsical intent (the uncontrollable rocker “Baby C’mon” had him gleefully sticking his tongue out to the audience, Hell’s Kitchen, and beyond). The newest Jick, drummer Jake Morris, thrashed his long locks over his drum set, his flailing adding more oomph to each cymbal crash.
Their set took heavy scoops from 2014’s Wig Out at Jagbags, whose stellar cuts are just as amazing as the album title is facetious. “Lariat,” “Houston Hades,” “Scattegories,” and “Chartjunk” all shone while the track “J Smoov” conjured the most emotional release from the enigmatic front man. Malkmus began the slow-burning track on guitar, but as soon as the band took over he let it flop down and favored the microphone. He grabbed it off the stand, swayed across the stage, and when the time came for him to hop back on lead, his strumming hand continued to grasp the mic during the reverb-heavy solo.
Though Jagbags was duly represented, that didn’t mean the past was locked in quarantine. “Animal Midnight” was a deep-cut pleaser (Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz Tweeted her appreciation from the crowd) and the back-to-back jamming of “Asking Price” and “Stick Figures In Love” remains a live Jicks staple for a reason: When the opening drum roll and guitar riff in “Stick Figures” kicked off, the crowd responded with elation.
The set ended with the 10-minute epic “Real Emotional Trash,” and the show highlight came around midway when the rhythm section took five so that an a cappella Malkmus could lament his way through one of the better love songs of his generation, “Freeze The Saints” from the early-days gem Face The Truth. With just Clark accompanying on keys, Malkmus shot an arrow through the heart of each word, and in lieu of a guitar solo, he hopped on and shared the keyboard in a dual style akin to “Chopsticks.” Towards the end of the bit, Malkmus informed Clark, “You’re stepping on me, bro,” and the crowd mussed as they swayed with every note.
When the final feedback reverberations of “Real Emotional Trash” ran their course, the audience was left with an unanswered call for an encore; but that didn’t mean fans left disappointed. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks had given everything they had: Heightened guitar solos, valleys of melodic euphoria, and inspired jams. Who can fault them for asking for more?