Learning that one of your favorite bands is playing the nearest state/county fair is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a concert ticket grants you admission into a land of 88 oz. buckets of French fries, giant slides, and priceless people watching. On the other, it means that the crafters of some of the most important tunes in your life are billed somewhere between eating fried Twinkies and riding the Vomitron 3000 for many audience members.
I long ago made peace with the current state of Weezer, who returned to headline the State Fair grandstand Saturday night after previously bringing their nerdy anthems to the Great Minnesota Get-Together in 2011. Too niche to fill an arena but too used to big paychecks to return to the clubs they came up in, the ‘90s and ‘00s hitmakers were reduced to a crowd-pleasing tribute to themselves around the beginning of the Obama presidency.
Whether you’re seeing Rivers Cuomo and company at your local amphitheater or an exurban casino, you enter knowing you’re going to witness a 75-minute run-through of their hits and, if you’re lucky, a few cuts from the latest album that they’re promoting to a minimal degree. Pleezer might be a more apt name.
Sure, when your cavalcade of chart-toppers chronologically begins with “Undone -- The Sweater Song,” “Buddy Holly,” and “Say It Ain’t So,” even setlist snobs like me aren’t complaining. Weezer spread those three tracks from 1994’s self-titled debut, a.k.a. “The Blue Album,” throughout their 16-song set Saturday.
The latter rocker was unquestionably the best moment of the concert, its verses sung with fiery passion by frontman Cuomo and its emotive guitar solo played with similar gusto. The band even added one of the best first songs on a first album in rock history, “My Name is Jonas” early in the set, and, in medley form, two more “Blue” gems later. More on those medleys in a minute.
Furthermore, the chunky, faux-aggro riffs of “Hash Pipe” rocked me harder than any of those giant sumo wrestlers from the music video ever could. During the poppy perfection of “Perfect Situation,” Cuomo walked around the crowd and whipped out one of his trademark guitar solos. The refreshingly stripped-down take on “Island in the Sun” made the huge grandstand feel like one of the intimate free stages spread throughout the fairgrounds.
The problem with most Weezer live shows is that the foursome clings like static to marginal singles like, for example, 2009’s (excellently titled) “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” and 2014’s “Back to the Shack.” The alt-rock veterans unabashedly aim their live shows at those casual fans who come to the gig armed with nothing but a cursory knowledge of the band’s career trajectory and an iPhone at the ready to capture “Beverly Hills." But there is no way that the number of attendees intent on catching either of the aforementioned minor hits Saturday outweighed those hankering for a deep cut from 1996 cult-classic Pinkerton, or even a lesser-played “Green Album” tune.
Alas, no bones thrown to the loyal followers who didn’t ditch Weezer after the nearly career-ending commercial failure of Pinkerton, save for 60 seconds of “The Good Life” and an “El Scorcho” that followed a completely unnecessary crowd sing-along of fun.’s “We Are Young,” the most shameless pandering I’ve witnessed at a Weezer show to date. That snippet of “The Good Life” came during a medley that collected it, “Back to the Shack” and three early numbers in “Surf Wax America,” “Dope Nose,” and “Keep Fishin’” (strange that 2002’s Maladroit is now well within the first half of Weezer’s 22-year recording career).
The transitions between songs alternated between seamless and clunky in this geek-rock grab bag, which was Weezer’s way of saying, “These songs are now commercial afterthoughts, so we don’t want to risk you heading for the bathroom halfway through, but hopefully they’ll keep your attention for a verse and a chorus each.” Cuomo’s apparent indifference toward Maladroit was highlighted by him handing over vocal duties on its two medley cuts -- bassist Scott Shriner took over on “Dope Nose” and guitarist Brian Bell sang “Keep Fishin’.”
Make no mistake: This is not intended as one of those tired “the first two albums were great and everything after sucks” assessments of Weezer. I love their two most recent albums, 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End and this year’s self-titled “White Album” and wish they played more new material.
That the band only played two full “White” selections, the energetic album opener “California Kids” and the unlikely hit “Thank God for Girls” (“King of the World” was combined with the epic last half of 1994’s “Only in Dreams,” a medley that wasn’t as sacrilegious in person as it looks on paper) was a disappointment and speaks to Weezer’s reluctance to challenge their audience. Decking the stage out to look like a Los Angeles beach scene means nothing if you don’t gear your show toward the current record’s summery tunes.
Two “White” cuts, “LA Girlz” and “Jacked Up,” got the ax earlier in the tour in favor of new non-album single “I Love the USA,” which was written for NASA’s Juno mission. Its big, dumb chorus (“I love the USA / Fuck yeah, this place is great” and darkly tinged electronica verses fly in the face of Weezer’s return-to-rock mission statement they adopted after going off the rails with Raditude and Hurley in the late aughts, yet the song inspired the most crowd participation of the night. As Cuomo belted out a flag-waving refrain custom-built for those who think Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is a jingoistic fist-pumper, thousands across the mostly sold-out grandstand lit the venue with the flashlights on their iPhones.
Which, I suppose, is my way of saying, “What do I know?” See you soon at Mystic Lake, Weezer.
Notes on the openers: Saturday’s bill was curated by 89.3 the Current, as this was the radio station’s annual Music-on-a-Stick concert (R.I.P. Minnesota Music-on-a-Stick). Kicking off the festivities was local band Fury Things (or, as Weezer’s Bell called them, “Furry Things”). They put on a high-energy half-hour of melodic, guitar-heavy tunes that included songs from 2015 debut VHS and a cover of upcoming tour-mate Bob Mould.
Between Fury Things and Weezer were the Struts, a U.K. act who wear their glam-rock influences on their leather and/or bespectacled sleeves. Their songs are catchy and their stage presence commendable, but their 10-minute crowd participation section (“Sing ‘Oh yeah!..’ ‘Now I wanna hear from the left side...’, etc.) was tiresome.
My Name is Jonas
(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To
Pork and Beans
I Love the USA
Thank God for Girls
Dope Nose/Back to the Shack/Keep Fishin’/The Good Life/Surf Wax America
Undone -- The Sweater Song
Island in the Sun
King of the World/Only in Dreams
Say It Ain’t So