The weather was shit and it wasn’t my scene, but that was all right. In fact, it was fitting. It was the greatest fucked up band of all time playing to the most fucked up fans in popular music. None of us, the band included, would have known what to do in more ideal circumstances. To crib some poesy from Paul himself, let the bad times roll.
I was two years old when the Replacements played Grant Park in 1991. I’ve studied their work like scripture since I was 16, all the while praying for what seemed like an impossible reunion. And when it was announced, I hesitated.
Mind you, it wasn’t for the same reasons that so many dispassionate critics and jaded purists hesitated. I had no gripes about the integrity of the line-up (all due respect to the late Bob Stinson, but it’s Paul Westerberg’s band—he wrote the songs) or the money involved (even if it was an old-fashioned cash grab, there’s no one more deserving than these guys). No, I hesitated because I really, really didn’t want to go to Riot Fest.
I’d never been to a music festival, and I had hoped to avoid them indefinitely. This was due in part to longstanding ideological concerns. The unvarnished and unapologetic consumerism of these events is repugnant to me. Sure, music is a business, but does it have to be Wal-Mart? Must we experience live music as a one-stop shop and crawl the glut of shows like we paw through the clearance rack?
Further, I’m just not much for crowds. When I’m with 20,000 fellow fans, I don’t get the warm, fuzzy feeling of communion. I get the shakes. When some drunk plows into my right side as I try my damndest to enjoy a perfunctory, poorly amplified performance by Blondie, I don’t laugh and slap him on the back. I’m tempted either to run for the hills or fight like hell.
These are powerful motivators for me, and they were nearly powerful enough to keep me away from Riot Fest. But because the Replacements and their music mean far more to me than my principles and my squeamishness, I grudgingly got a ticket. My wife and I made it to our Chicago hotel early Saturday afternoon after four hours on the road, one hour on a train, and a half hour hoofing it down Michigan Avenue. We dropped our things off, grabbed a quick bite, and made our way to Humboldt Park. We missed our bus stop by a mile and an hour, had to backtrack, spent another half hour on the bus to the park and made our way through the gate just in time to catch the aforementioned Blondie set. Things were going quite badly at this point, and it was clear that the crowd was going to be worse for me than I anticipated, but we stuck it out for a terrific show by the Violent Femmes. Another half-hour on the bus and a half-mile trek down Michigan back to our hotel. I was ready to call it quits and go home, but goddamn it, I wasn’t missing this. Come hell or high water, I was going to see the Replacements.
To make matters worse, it rained all day Sunday. We delayed our departure to Humboldt Park to the very last minute. Finally, decked out in overpriced raincoats, we bit the bullet and went. “It’s too late to turn back. Here we go …”
Regrettably (scratch that—very regrettably), we made it in time to see the last 15 minutes of an insufferable set from AFI. Sloshing through the mud and spilled beer, we staked out spots near the sound booth. My mood was sour. I was already planning our escape route.
At 9:15 exactly, to the strains of Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Josh Freese, and Dave Minehan took the stage. Westerberg deadpanned, “We haven’t played in three weeks, but …”
What proceeded was not a performance of “Takin’ a Ride,” which is what we all expected. Instead, what we got was an enactment and incantation of “Takin’ a Ride.” Where once Westerberg sneered, now he howled; where once the band thrashed, now it pummeled. This was fierce, confrontational music. This was punk. I’d never been too keen on the studio version of this song. Within 30 seconds, I was in love.
But that was just the start. They did this with each of the 25 songs that comprised their set. Throughout, they were passionate and precise in equal measure. As a result, the songs sounded better and said more than they ever have.
This wasn’t lost on the crowd. From the first, the audience was rapturous, sometimes singing over Westerberg, a mammoth Greek chorus of tens of thousands of the disaffected, disenchanted and dumb, myself included.
And the band didn’t give a single shit. Westerberg smiled and flipped us the bird. Stinson cracked wise about our iPhones and iPads. They teased us, told us to fuck off, and made it otherwise clear that while they weren’t doing this in spite of us, they weren’t doing it for us, either. They closed with “IOU,” the greatest “screw you” in a songbook full of them. As they left the stage, it began to rain. Even God himself must be a fan.
On my way back to the hotel, with what was left of the head the Replacements had just blown off still spinning, I got lost and called a cab that never came. I finally caught the wrong bus, but still made it back to the hotel. God shows extra mercy to fellow fans.
Taking the train back home Monday morning, I read a couple of lukewarm reviews. In each, the writer talked about the formerly “transcendent” ‘Mats (invariably the word critics use), how their infamous antics and inconsistency allowed for such transformative performances, how Westerberg and company were no longer capable of such righteous power. And maybe they’re not and what I witnessed was simply a very good rock’n’roll show, nothing more and nothing less.
But to hell with that. I don’t care what their antics might have signified back in the day. I was never convinced by all these tales of wasted elegance anyway. Maybe there’s something there, but the telling has been compromised by the nostalgia of the people writing the history. What matters now and forever more are the songs. This night’s performance was, among many other things, a vindication of the songs, a testament to the endurance and depth of the canon. After 22 years of myth-making that gave the songs short shrift, to successfully shift attention back to the work is not simply triumphant. It’s…okay, transcendent.