Yet the 55-year-old Westerberg has finally decided to give the people what they want with a Replacements reunion tour, close to a quarter-century after the original band’s breakup, pretty much leaving the Smiths and Talking Heads as the only legendary holdouts whose mercurial frontmen would rather die than reunite. Whatever made him stop holding his nose against the sweet smell of a comeback, there was nothing mercenary-seeming about Wednesday’s show, which did nothing but embellish the Replacements’ rep as one of rock’s all-time great groups. If anything, with a couple of ringers filling in for absent original members and a presumed cork in the bottle that fueled some of the old shows, the group sounded more ready to conquer the world now than they did when Musician magazine’s cover dubbed them “the last, best band of the ‘80s.” That won’t happen, but re-conquering a few thousand hearts a night still feels like a case of even the losers getting lucky sometimes.
The combo couldn’t have picked a better vintage opener than “Seen Your Video,” which, by nature of being an instrumental until the closing bars, felt here like a classic theatrical overture. Although they didn’t play it from behind a curtain like they did on the tour’s opening night, the band did perform most of it from offstage, except for drummer Josh Freese. When Westerberg finally emerged and started half-screaming the title, he almost didn’t need to add the extra explanatory line about “phony rock & roll.” In 1984, before anyone knew to call indie-rock indie-rock, the three words “seen your video” by themselves were about as strong an insult as Westerberg could have tossed at any other band. We might have different standards for what constitutes selling out now, but that introductory throwback immediately established where Kurt Cobain got the inspiration for his own sneering idealism… even before it became that much more obvious as the Replacements capped the night with a 1987 song called, um, “Never Mind.”
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With his increasing willingness to indulge in thinly disguised sweetness, Westerberg always remained a more well-rounded songwriter than Cobain, who never completely stepped out of his punk-as-Asberger’s mode. Befitting the room and the mood, Wednesday’s Replacements set list had a heavy emphasis on the earlier, punkier stuff, including such unlikely-to-be-revived oldies as “White and Lazy.” But they also pulled out occasional reminders that, as the ‘80s progressed, Westerberg turned out to have more in common with Rodgers & Hart than G.G. Allin. In the end his romantic streak had him emphasizing with misunderstood women who sounded a little bit like, well, female Paul Westerbergs. “They play with your head, but they never stroke your hair,” he sang in “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” a more brooding highlight of Wednesday’s show, sounding for a second like the sentimental fool fans eventually realized him to be.
But this tour is more about reclaiming that early insubordinate spirit, and not so much the maturity that reared its pretty head on the later group albums and solo work that followed. You want a Replacements show to teeter along the razor’s edge between the sloppy and the sublime. Not that they were necessarily faking it when a rendition of their flightstaff-insulting country song, “Waitress in the Sky,” ended with Westerberg exclaiming “God damn that open tuning” and bassist Tommy Stinson adding, “At rehearsal, that thing was slammin’.” That exchange, and Westerberg’s inexplicable decision to start “White and Lazy” from inside a red camping tent he eventually dragged around the stage, were as close as this show came to some of the famously shambolic gigs of old. We still lap up sops to old-fashioned anti-professionalism in a Replacements show, even if these days any signs of actual chaos are about as sleight-of-hand as the scotch in Dean Martin’s glass.
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No danger of canned stage patter here. “Let’s try that sissy one,” said Westerberg, putting the most irreverent possible spin on “Androgynous,” their touching ode to glam-rock and/or actual ambisexuality. Later: “Tommy says I don’t have any ass in these pants,” Westerberg pointed out. “When you ARE an ass, you don’t need an ass.” The T. Rex medley they performed (with new guitarist Dave Minehan taking lead vocals on a smashing “20th Century Boy”) was explicable. Less so, their cover of Barbie Gaye’s 1956 single “My Boy Lollipop,” but it was hardly any less delightful for the obscurity. In that same anything-goes spirit, the Mats offered one new song, “Whole Food Blues,” a blues more or less performed to the tune of “The Thrill is Gone,” with Westerberg singing that he went to the store for some health food but “all I got was attitude.”
These welcome moments of goofiness aside, the Replacements evoked a phrase rarely heard in their actual heyday — “well-oiled machine” — by the time the set was back on track with a furiously perfect rendition of “Alex Chilton.” That invocation offered a moment to reflect on how, even though we think of the Replacements as lovable losers, they did succeed in a way that Big Star never did, actually getting on the radio and sparking a revolution that lasted at least as long as Cobain did. If, in the end, Westerberg’s self-prophesying came true and they didn’t sell many records, we can still see the shot glass as half-full.
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So bless Westerberg for getting Stinson back in the fold and allowing us a few nights to pretend that rock & roll full of bluster and spit and wit and wisdom and crankily veiled melody really did inherit the earth. Wednesday’s ecstatic experience of a gig was almost worth the quarter-century wait to see these should-be Hall of Famers back in action… even if its 70-minute length was considerably shorter than the other shows the Replacements have done so far on this tour. It could be that Westerberg wanted to conserve a little energy for Thursday night’s sold-out follow-up concert at the Palladium. Or maybe he just needed to get his tax return in before midnight?
- Seen Your Video
- Takin’ a Ride
- Favorite Thing
- I’m in Trouble
- Kissin’ in Action
- Kiss Me on the Bus
- I Will Dare
- I’ll Be You
- 20th Century Boy/Bang a Gong (Get It On)/All Shook Down
- Anywhere’s Better Than Here
- Waitress in the Sky
- White and Lazy
- Whole Food Blues
- Can’t Hardly Wait
- Bastards of Young
- My Boy Lollipop
- I Don’t Know/Buck Hill
- Within Your Reach
- Left of the Dial
- Alex Chilton
- Never Mind
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