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Malkmus and Jicks make serendipity sound timeless

Stephen Malkmus (shown in New York last year) played a 75-minute set Saturday at Royale. Stephen Malkmus (shown in New York last year) played a 75-minute set Saturday at Royale. (Chad Batka for The New York Times/File 2010)
By Franklin Soults
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2011

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About two-thirds of the way through “Brain Gallop,’’ Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’ third number at Royale on Saturday night, the singer’s microphone went dead. A 20-year veteran of national tours, Malkmus kept mouthing the words as he played the song’s jaunty lead guitar climax, and the tune remained as appealingly sunny and funky as on his new CD, “Mirror Traffic.’’ The mike returned to life on the next song, so who knows if Malkmus and his three accomplished Jicks even noticed the glitch?

The uncertainty is pure Malkmus. Part of the allure of this underground rocker has always been the inscrutable way he confuses accident and purpose. In the 1990s, Malkmus expanded on that allure as the leader of Pavement, one of the most critically celebrated bands of the alternative rock era.

But now, Malkmus’s slippery lyrics and sly slacker detachment just seem like the serendipitous charms of a sun-kissed California guy who never had to try: talented, smart, handsome, athletic, nimble on both guitar and thesaurus. At Saturday’s early evening show, the unimportant momentary loss of the lead vocals underscored how his tuneful, guitar-driven rock has largely become music for music’s sake, just like the avant-garde jazz Malkmus has admired since the start of his career.

The relaxed and accomplished show also testified to the strength of “Mirror Traffic,’’ which made up the bulk of the 75-minute set, padded with a few older solo songs, a momentary foray into Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel,’’ an obscure noise-rock number by Polvo, and the 1972 AM radio smash “Brandy.’’

“That song is so New England,’’ Malkmus said, “you can practically smell the rotting lobster.’’

Though the set included no Pavement songs, Malkmus’s style has been set since the group’s heyday. At 45, he even looks much like he did in 1992 at Axis on Lansdowne Street, when Pavement toured on its debut album. The decent-sized crowd included plenty of peers, but also many younger fans, including one pleading with Malkmus to sign a vinyl copy of that debut, “Slanted and Enchanted.’’

“That thing belongs in a museum,’’ quipped Jicks keyboardist-guitarist Mike Clark. At show’s end, though, Malkmus invited the fan onstage and signed the record sleeve, grinning. Whether the smile was sincere or sarcastic was hard to say.

Franklin Soults can be reached at