Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks / Azita Lee's Palace, Toronto ON - May 18, 2003

A "best of" NYC art-punk mix (VU, Television, New York Dolls, Richard Hell, etc.) provided a cool as corduroy segue between drama queen opener Azita and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. By the midway point of the headliner's set though, it was clear the canned collection had represented the capacity crowd's only opportunity to truly rock out. Indeed, "less rock, more talk" would have been a fitting theme for the night, as the lanky former Pavement front-man cranked up the between-song banter to 11. Silly shit too, like in-jokes and long-drive teasing, the likes of which ought to have stayed in the van, or well off the stage. And still no rock. Perhaps Malkmus and company have grown accustomed to performing material from his self-titled solo debut, which, respectably, is unapologetic in its general unwillingness to rock out. That's fine. But as anyone familiar with the unit's brilliant follow-up, Pig Lib, will attest, there are numerous rocking episodes, not the least of which occur in tracks like "Sheets," "Dark Wave" and "(Do Not Feed The) Oyster." But even though the latter two titles made the set list, they were performed with the same slackerly lack of panache that informed moody creepers like "Ramp of Death" and "Which Mountain Bridge." Even the feverish crescendo of the album-anchoring "1% of One" had been seemingly castrated for its coming out. Meanwhile, the goofing around, false starts and studied awkwardness continued, as if inspired by some past accusation of having taken things too seriously. The band loosened its collective hair even more for a lengthy encore that featured, among other things, Malkmus trading places with drummer John Moen for a cover of Gram Parsons' "100 Years." The exercise was clearly more fun for the band than for the audience. The same can't be said of former Scissor Girl Azita Youssefi's show-opening performance. Fronting a trio on piano and vocals, the veteran Chicago scenester struck an exasperated "let's get this over with" stance from the get-go, as if reacting to some imaginary boo birds. Perhaps due to her often flat delivery, Azita's brand of avant-cabaret art-pop sailed over most heads, prompting some polite applause mixed with the dull hum of indifference.