Friday, May 01, 2015

Absolution is Out of the Question: The Replacements Remain Unapologetically Raggedy as Their Music Remains Irreplaceable -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Replacements
w/ opening act Smoking Popes
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
April 30, 2015 (also played April 29)
@@@@1/2 (for entire evening)

Absolution is out of the question
It makes no sense to apologize
The words I thought I brought I left behind
So never mind

The opening lines of "Never Mind," a song I've loved for decades since buying--initially on cassette--Pleased to Meet Me, the 1987 album that was my introduction to the Replacements, can serve as something of a microcosm for the concert I attended with a group of friends on Thursday night.

Lead singer and songwriter Paul Westerberg--accompanied by bassist Tommy Stinson and a couple replacements for Replacements of yore who are either dead, infirm or otherwise absent from the Back by Unpopular Demand semi-reunion tour--certainly left behind a number of words, and even entire verses, of songs from one of the most brilliant and personally-cherished catalogs in rock history.

I won't guess at the means or measures of inebriation and/or other impairment, but along with much lyrical butchering--though the music, likely thanks to the steadiness of drummer Josh Freese and guitarist Dave Minehan, usually sounded swell, even ferocious--Westerberg threw his setlist into the audience midway through (he seemingly wasn't much heeding to it anyway), bantered somewhat inanely with Stinson and the crowd, appeared to chastise and/or confuse Minihan at several points, stood precariously on a stool while singing "Customer" and ended the main set by performing "Alex Chilton" while prone on his back within an onstage tent. (See video below)

Which probably prompts many of you to say either "WTF?" or "Yup, that's the Replacements."

Or both.

During their initial 1979-91 run together, the Minneapolis band developed a reputation for drunk, disheveled shows that could be brilliant or awful or a good bit of each.

In addition to this legacy preceding them, it somewhat preceded me, as having missed a chance to see the Mats--a moniker derived from Placemats, itself derived from Replacements--in 1987 at the Aragon, I first saw them opening for Tom Petty at Poplar Creek in 1989 and at the Hollywood Palladium in early 1991, long after original guitarist Bob Stinson was fired for being too drunk even for the notoriously debaucherous band.

Though the Replacements would split up onstage at a free concert in Grant Park on July 4, 1991--I didn't attend despite being in Chicago on a trip from my then-home in L.A., but heard it on WXRT--I seem to recall the band edging toward relative professionalism by the time I caught them in concert.

And when the current foursome played at Riot Fest in Chicago in 2013--one of three shows representing the Mats' first performances since 1991--I was delighted by how good they were (as I wrote here).

That show was especially gratifying, not just as a glorious reminder of how much I love the Replacements' music, but because in 2005 at the most recent of a handful of solo Westerberg shows I've seen, his antics went well beyond silly and sloppy into truly disgraceful territory.

The latter wasn't quite the case on Thursday, at least not until rather late into the 90-minute set. 

Even with all the juvenalia Westerberg--who's now 55--and to a lesser extent, Tommy Stinson, exhibited, perhaps undermining the exalted place in rock's pantheon the Mats always deserved but never quite commercially achieved, the show was far more good than bad and I'm damn glad I went.

After another longtime favorite, the Smoking Popes--a great band emanating from Chicago's far northwest suburbs--opened the show with a fantastic 45-minute set that had me and my friends already satisfied with the evening's entertainment value, the Mats took the stage with "Takin' a Ride" from their 1980 debut, Sorry, Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash!, followed by "Hangin' Downtown" from the same LP.

Although these songs lack the brilliant lyricism Westerberg would develop just a few years later--the mid '80s trio of albums, Let It Be, Tim and Pleased to Meet Me are all just phenomenal--I thought the Mats sounded great, even tight, as they blasted the already paint-peeling walls of the Riv.

The Smoking Popes
The third song in, "Color Me Impressed," certainly did, and a great take on Tim's "Left of the Dial" had me rather ecstatic.

I was delighted when "Little Mascara" followed, as it is one of the most acute examples of Westerberg's wonderful way with words, such as on the ingenious couplet:

All you ever wanted was someone
to take care of ya 
All you're ever losin' is 
a little mascara

Thus, I couldn't help but cringe a bit when Westerberg couldn't make it through the song's first verse without flubbing the lyrics.

The rest of the show was a similar dichotomy, mixing songs I was simply enthralled to be hearing once again--"Nobody," "I Will Dare," "Can't Hardly Wait," "Bastards of Young," "Merry Go Round," "Never Mind"--with some "that's just them" sloppiness but also half-assed cover songs and genuinely asinine exploits. (See the Replacements' Thursday setlist from the Riviera at

My friends generally agreed after the show that the lunacy seemed legitimate--and likely fueled by excessive intakes--not some disingenuous attempt by Westerberg and Stinson to act half their age...and less. Although the tent episode seemed especially odd, given that the roadies just happened to have a tent on hand (and YouTube reveals the prop has been used on prior shows on this tour).

Yet with whatever intent the in-tent nuttiness was enacted, upon which one could imagine Westerberg being hastily straitjacketed into detox, the band followed it was a deliriously blistering single encore of "I.O.U."

All told, I couldn't help but sense that I was seeing the type of Replacements show I might have in 1985: sloppy, unpredictable, at times scintillating, others exasperating.

Never minding absolution, there was something forgivably appropriate about such a chaotic mess of a seemingly money-grabbing reunion tour by a band that never really cashed in, perhaps due to their own raggedy excesses.

To have them be on their best behavior and note-perfect--or at least more maturely deferential to substantive ticket prices and professional in a way I expect from most performers I see--may have been preferential in parts, but also seemingly wouldn't have truly been the Replacements.

At least of old (if not their theoretically more grown-up selves). 

As such, abetted by a sublime set from the Smoking Popes, devoid of just one song I really wanted to hear--"I'll Be You," which I didn't get at Riot Fest either; it was played at Wednesday's show at the Riv--and grading not so much on technical merit as overall enjoyment of the evening, if this wasn't truly a @@@@1/2 show for the ages, it was a satisfactory enough replacement for those of us now a bit more aged.

Below are two clips I shot, the last two songs played: "Alex Chilton" with singer Paul Westerberg in a tent, and the show-closing "I.O.U."

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