It started off like a Paul Westerberg gig and then a Replacements show broke out. Harking back to the good old days when the shit literally hit the fans (to paraphrase the title of one of his former band’s drunken, rambling bootleg cassettes), Westerberg played a rowdy set that careened into off-key yowling vocals and, sometimes, literal chaos.
For his first local concert appearance in almost a decade, Westerberg combined new and old material with some choice covers, pleasing both new emo fans and aging Gen X’ers alike. Chris Mars, the late Bob Stinson and brother Tommy Stinson were gone, their replacements a trio dubbed ‘His Only Friends.’ These three new Minneapolis cronies are Prince & The New Power Generation drummer Michael Bland, ex-Son Volt bassist Jim Boquist and guitar muso Kevin Bowe, who share their predecessors’ loose-limbed, garage-grunge approach.
There was no shortage of ’Mats material to placate die-hard fans. “Merry Go Round” and “Kiss Me on the Bus” led into “Someone Take the Wheel” (with English singer Terry Reid, described by Westerberg as the “greatest white bluesman ever”), “Little Mascara,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” and then “I’ll Be You.” But it was the new songs, particularly the understated acoustic encore, “Crackle & Drag”—about a mother who commits suicide, from 2003’s Come Feel Me Tremble—that hit the hardest, emotionally.
Resplendent in John Lennon-style motorcycle cap, shades, red, white and blue scarf and lime-green sport coat, Westerberg blossomed amidst the creative freedom of his three-year association with indie label, Vagrant. But just as he settled in, the old self-destructive tendencies began to take over, as he offered to “skip the maudlin ballad and cut right to the worthless crap.” Stripping down to a T-shirt emblazoned with epitaph, “Hobo Soup,” Westerberg began goading fans, pitching fruit, then water and, finally, his guitar into the crowd. Snippets of The Rolling Stones’ “Happy,” Neil Hefti’s “Batman Theme” and folk anthem “Walk Right In” hinted at Westerberg’s primal influences. A jukebox (or iTunes)-worthy segue featured a spot-on version of the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You,” The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” Neil Diamond’s “Cherry, Cherry,” the Stones-by-way-of-Bobby Womack tune “It’s All Over Now” and Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny.” These songs were sandwiched around “Alex Chilton,” the ultimate tribute to a cult rocker whose influence far outweighs his record sales. Ironically, it’s the same position Westerberg finds himself in at 45 years old.
By refusing to conform to a straight-laced, unforgiving record industry, Westerberg finds himself occupying an increasingly narrow niche, loved by his fans but, sadly, unknown to the general public. As he finished a drunken duet with high-profile guest Lucinda Williams, he rued, “At least she has a record label,” with typical self-deprecation. The now-veteran punk, remains “Unsatisfied,” continuing to flip the bird to the music-biz establishment. It’s his restless spirit that still makes him so compelling. Not to mention all those amazing songs. But while his shows can be a bit of a train wreck, you just can’t help rubber necking.