When the front desk person at the Marriott hotel in downtown Minneapolis asked, “What brings you to town?,” I would have won instant acceptance, or at least comprehension, if I had answered “a secret Prince concert.” Or better yet: “The Vikings game. Hurts about Adrian Peterson, doesn’t it?”
But when I said, “The Replacements,’ she gave me that gently mournful glance reserved for grown men heading off somewhere dressed like Mr. Spock, and I felt the need to explain.”First show back in their hometown in 23 years.” The hint being: You ought to enlighten yourself with a Google search when we’re done here. Her eyes flashed blankly: Sorry, nobody home.
Even in their ’80s heyday, when the indie-rock pioneers had ‘one foot in the door, the other in the gutter,” as one lyric offers, The Replacements were not a household name, not even in Minneapolis. But now? That door is sealed shut. Mention the band and people think you’re referring to the Keanu Reeves film about scab football players. On the other hand, there were 14,000 of us, according to the local Star-Tribune, who stood giddily in the outfield of Midway Park, a soon-to-be-demolished minor-league stadium, on Sept. 13, and waited for our heroes to return.
Back in the day, being a Replacements fan was like rooting for the Chicago Cubs. You didn’t actually want them to win. Ritualized self-abuse was central to the appeal. If you went to a show and they were dicks or too drunk, or half the band seemed to be playing a different song than the other half, well, that’s why you were there: to identify with them as unrepentant screw-ups. Because that’s what they were, and that’s what Paul Westerberg wrote beautiful, wrenching songs about (and a few other things, to be fair). Then he buried them in feedback and booze and bad attitude. He couldn’t maintain a boundary between his art and himself. He feared success because it might ruin his cred as a screw-up.
But that was then. At Midway Park, the four Replacements — Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson (who joined the band at age 12) and the two replacement Replacements, guitarist Dave Minehan and drummer Josh Freese — hit the stage in matching suits of gaudy, thrift-shop plaid and burst into “My Favorite Thing,” a 30-year-old song that could’ve been written for this very occasion.
Yeah kid, it’s a-really hip
With plenty of flash and you know it
Yeah Dad, you’re rocking real bad
Don’t break your neck when you fall
Yeah, Dad. Westerberg clearly knew who was there to see them.
Let’s get it out right here and make the completely true, if indefensible, claim that this was the best Replacements show ever. (My personal sample size is eight, including the first reunion show last summer in Toronto.) Westerberg, 54, looks more comfortable onstage than ever; his singing and guitar work were loud, fearless and brilliant. Stinson, who’s also in Guns N’ Roses and resembles Sid Vicious more with every passing year, now plays the bass like an actual instrument, not merely a stage prop. And the new guys? It was like nobody told them that to be in The Replacements, you have to at least pretend not to give a shit. Freese — who has the long, weird résumé of a veteran hired gun and has been known to wear a Lacoste shirt onstage, an unimaginable faux pas in the old Replacements — drummed with subtlety, power and wasted-teenager enthusiasm. Minehan, another seasoned pro, played as ecstatically as a kid plucked from the crowd to jam with his idols.
For the aged crowd at Midway Park, the show had taken real commitment. By the time you hit your 40s, the minor indignities of concert-going become all but intolerable. The curses you mutter at the tree-size jackass with the pom-pom hat blocking your view grow dangerously audible. You worry about the crushing lines at the porta-potties and how much more plastic-tasting beer you can drink before your bladder starts screaming. You realize that the people looking at you are thinking the same thing you’re thinking while looking at them. You are the opposite of cool.
But then a performance like the Replacements’ vaporizes your self-consciousness — or at least it did mine. As many times as I’ve listened to them through the years, songs like “Left of the Dial” and “Color Me Impressed” felt powerful and emotionally complex, which had everything to do with Westerberg. Introducing the harmonica virtuoso Tony Glover as he joined the band for a song, Westerberg called him “a real musician,” which was sort of a joke and sort of a reference to The Replacements’ legacy of using self-deprecation as a crutch. Finally, Westerberg took a chance and didn’t play the screw-up. He presented himself as an artist with faith in his own gifts.
Every now and then, I glanced at one of the few kids in attendance and wondered what he was feeling as he looked over at his father unabashedly singing along to such misfit anthems as “Androgynous,” ‘Bastards of Young” (“We are the sons of no one”) and “Unsatisfied” as if they were the holiest of hymns. Did he think, “Jesus, Dad, what the f— was up with you when you were my age?” Or did they cross the divide and make a connection? This being Minnesota, land of lakes, carbohydrates and stoic white people, the two of them may not talk about it. But I’m betting a bond was made.
The Replacements came out for the last encore wearing the jerseys of the St. Paul Saints, the regular tenants of Midway Park, with each of their names stitched on the back. Well, they were all wearing them except Westerberg, who held his jersey in his hand and eyed it skeptically. “You think Bob Dylan ever rocked this shit?” he said, before Stinson coaxed him to put it on.
Thus attired, The Replacements embraced the truth: This was Old Timers’ Day. And they rocked it.
This article first appeared in the Sept. 27th issue of Billboard.