The Replacements break their 22-year live drought
Photo by Bonnie Schiffman
Three decades ago, Paul Westerberg's opening lyrics from the Replacements' "I Will Dare" asked no one in particular, "How young are you? How old am I?" Now 53 years old, the rock star with a serious J.D. Salinger streak — who emerged in a plaid suitcoat and mismatched socks Sunday, August 25, in Toronto — offered up that song to all comers begrudgingly dragged out of seclusion.
"I'm gonna dedicate this song to anyone who was dragged here tonight against their will," the singer/guitarist said. "Maybe someone told you, 'Get out of the house, it'll do you some good.' This song's for you, and for me."
Westerberg spent a good amount of time in his house dodging inquiries about his ahead-of-their-time Twin Cities band that fused punk, Americana, rockabilly, power pop, and even a little arena rock. Until earlier this year, that is, when Westerberg and founding bassist Tommy Stinson signed on to headline Riot Fest, an independent Chicago-based music festival that has spun off events in Denver and Toronto, the latter of which would be the first of the 2013 series.
Just by strolling onto the outdoor stage set up at the Fort York historic site — as Pavement's "Stereo" blared through the PA — Westerberg, Stinson, and recent live collaborators guitarist David Minehan and drummer Josh Freese proved the impossible to be anything but. Still, loose talk and expectations have stuck to the band like a skunk's odor since Twin/Tone's Peter Jesperson snapped them up in 1980 — a lot due to too many erratic shows to count. Yes, all 16 of this band's limbs were functional, but there was a heap more to prove at the first Replacements show since the last lineup passed their instruments to roadies mid-song in 1991 and disappeared.
"Sorry we took so long. For 25 years we've had a wardrobe debate — unresolved," Westerberg said. "Play some old shit if that's all right." The sky was dark by this time, and the fans' exploded-heart greetings came from faces mature enough to have caught the original 'Mats lineup at the Longhorn in '80, as well as others born long after that. For the 75 gripping minutes of the band's headlining set, the rowdy sold-out audience of nearly 10,000 were screaming, dust-kicking bastards of young.
Starting with a loud and fast trio of "Takin a Ride," "I'm in Trouble," and "Hangin' Downtown" from 1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash — with the equally blistering "Favorite Thing" — the guys continued the day's punk attitude instilled by the show's earlier acts including Michigan outlaws Iggy & the Stooges, San Diego punkabilly act Rocket From the Crypt, and Massachusetts alt-rock bruisers Dinosaur Jr., who acknowledged their inspirational debt to the 'Mats mid-set.
Tommy Stinson was immediately a magnetic presence at Westerberg's side, and punctuated his motions with waves of his bass's headstock. Bowtie-clad Minehan and giddy kid in a candy store Freese powered this machine with ease into Hootenanny highlight "Color Me Impressed," featuring Westerberg doing his best stadium whistling into the mic.
The physical commotion subsided as the clever pop of "Kiss Me on the Bus" from their 1985 major-label debut, Tim, cued up, and after a few lines, Westerberg missed a few words, and then a few more. His grin that followed could've been sheepishness or smug satisfaction, but the sing-along that emerged from the audience was undeniably loyal. Everyone backed him up, and the vocal support continued lustily along during a call for requests.
The low-key "Androgynous" — which has in recent years become an unofficial LGBT anthem — was settled upon, and again there were some moments when Westerberg retreated from the material. But these Replacements fans of 2013 are a resilient bunch, and proved too transfixed by this long-awaited situation to let their hero get in serious trouble. Instead, the song built into a glow that bounced from every corner of the park and lingered on a blissful Stinson. The bassist had a polished sideman's presence onstage, honed by years touring with Guns N' Roses, and struck all the right poses to fill out his frontman's onstage canvas without ever overshadowing him.
Westerberg's vocals grew powerful yet playful on "Achin' to Be" and "I Will Dare," and then "the man with a black guitar that sounds like a banjo," according to Stinson, led his band through a scorching Sorry Ma-era "Love You Till Friday." What might have devolved into a messy cover in the band's more intoxicated years was instead supplemented by a killer transition into Chuck Berry's rollicking "Maybellene." Add a vicious run through Sham 69's "Borstal Breakout" and the Gypsy show tune "Everything's Coming Up Roses" during the encore, and this was far from a shit-hitting-the-fans experience.
With steady hands on his guitar, Westerberg led a quick transition from "Little Mascara" into "Left of the Dial." Then the infectious nod to one of his idols, "Alex Chilton." It was a trifecta of fun, and by this point, he had ditched his plaid jacket and was sweating through his shirt. With a few winks, some playful singing out of the side of his mouth, and the tight orchestration of his team, he almost seemed to enjoy making like a spiky Bruce Springsteen. It set the table for "Swingin' Party," dedicated to guitarist Bob "Slim" Dunlap, who replaced founding axeman Bob Stinson 1986 and suffered a debilitating stroke last year. This was the night's mellowest moment — about the only one without a hint of a sneer. This crowd was too busy hugging itself to sneer back anyhow.
In the 22-year hiatus since the last Replacements live show, reunion talk was never far away. "Let's face it, the real fans are pretty old now. I mean, the ones who saw it will never see it again, because even if we got together, we could never be it..." Westerberg told Bill Holdship in a 2002 interview. Throughout his career, Westerberg has endured hyperbolic comparisons to everyone from Springsteen to Iggy Pop to Kurt Cobain but never, until recently, been properly compensated for his heart-on-sleeve songwriting and performance gifts. "If there ever is a let's-go-to-the-bank-and-cash-in reunion, I'm ready. And make no mistake: That will be the reason... If the Replacements reunite, we would want to make a bundle of money to rectify being screwed for so many years."
But what he wasn't taking into account was Dunlap. Not long after his stroke, the dilapidated storefront of one of Minnesota's most revered/reviled bands had loads of fresh scaffolding around it. To raise funds to help defray Dunlap's mounting medical costs, the living members of the band worked together, though founding drummer Chris Mars created artwork and submitted a song, but didn't record with Westerberg and Stinson. The resulting EP of covers was called Songs for Slim — their first recordings, save for two new tracks that showed up on a 2006 hits collection, since 1990's All Shook Down — which arrived early this year.
The rumors of a live reunion followed, and in June, the Riot Fest announcement came. As of this writing, these are the only three gigs the band has announced publicly, but Westerberg told a young fan in Toronto, "I'm sure we'll do something [in Minnesota]."
There will always be doubters who can't imagine this band without Mars or Bob Stinson or copious amounts of self-sabotaging booze, but this first Riot Fest gig gathered a multitude willing to renew their passports to see the Replacements for the first time in 22 years — or ever. Perhaps Westerberg would still say, officially, the band could never be "it" again. At least on Sunday this loss was the listener's gain. Mr. Formerly Too Cool to Care actually looked miffed when a "Swingin' Party" chord hit out of tune and he promptly apologized.
Things still ended on an aptly unapologetic note. The triumphant opening chords of pre-grunge anthem and set-closer "Bastards of Young" brought a gentle rain from the skies above Toronto, and a moshing thunderstorm on the ground. When the band snapped back minutes later, a lit-up middle finger made of spotlights glowed behind them for the final Iggy Pop-inspired encore, "I.O.U." But that prank was nothing compared to the full-scale downpour nature unloaded on everyone as they left the grounds. Somewhere Paul Westerberg can be content knowing Sunday night's crowd had a reason to be unsatisfied — even if it wasn't him.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.