“It’s turning!” shouts a bloke in the crowd, pointing at the giant Lovell Telescope overlooking the main stage, which has slowly started to revolve towards us as Pavement play the sadly majestic “Here”. It’s hard to imagine the band instigating such a piece of theatre – unlike some previous Bluedot headliners, Pavement are not ones for big cosmic gestures – but it nonetheless confers a sense of grandeur on the occasion. 31 years after their first UK show, these perennial mid-afternoon underdogs finally feel like bona fide festival headliners.
Last year at Primavera Porto, Pavement looked a tad uneasy with their new bill-topping status, not helped by a setlist that leaned too heavily on later, slower material. This time they get it absolutely spot-on, from Bob Nastanovich enthusiastically bashing his woodblock to the opening “Silence Kid” to the final crunching chords of “Cut Your Hair”. In between, they please everyone from the hardcore who’ve been here since “Box Elder” to those who’ve found their way to Pavement much more recently via Spotify ghost hit “Harness Your Hopes”. The set plots a perfect course between verbose singalongs, bursts of joyful anarchy and wracked, tender moments such as “Starlings Of The Slipstream”, for which swooping flocks of birds are projected across the face of the Lovell Telescope.
On-stage, it’s not just Nastanovich having fun either. Spiral Stairs plays and sings “Kennel District” like he’s just scored the winner at Old Trafford, which amuses even the otherwise inscrutable Stephen Malkmus. Over his shoulder, new sixth member Rebecca Cole bobs along, bringing good vibes as well as bolstering the sound. Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite adds bonus guitar heft to “Fin” before a few randoms gatecrash the stage to shake maracas to “Two States”. And “Grounded” sounds mightier than it’s ever done, its excoriation of bourgeois indifference only growing angrier over time.
At a Wowee Zowee listening party earlier in the day in the Notes tent, the band appeared to be enjoying each other’s company, eagerly adding to the Pavement trivia mountain by revealing that Trey Anastasio of Phish really loves the solo in “Rattled By The Rush”, and that Spiral Stairs’ mum taught Chris Isaak at school (“He was a brat!”). But when it came to accounting for their continued popularity, especially among those barely out of the womb first time around, they looked charmingly befuddled. “Good songs?” said Malkmus, hopefully. “And look at us!”
But we can help with that. Not many bands since Pavement have been able to carve out such a distinct place in the firmament, in love with rock music but allergic to all of its cliches, brandishing persistently catchy songs whose apparently daft and cryptic lyrics become more profound over time.
After this, there’s just Galway and Reykjavik, a couple more US festival dates and a final residency in Brooklyn before they all return to their solo projects, day jobs and racecourse quests. Malkmus has consistently ruled out the idea of penning new Pavement material, so it may be a long while before we see them together again. Their last reunion in 2010 fizzled out in acrimony but here, at least, they depart with the triumph they deserve.