The return of the Replacements (sorta, kinda, not really)

The return of the Replacements (sorta, kinda, not really)

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Early Replacements: Bob and Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, Paul Westerberg.

No one who truly loves rock ’n’ roll can deny that Paul Westerberg is one of the most powerful and enduring songwriters of his era, those vaunted indie-rock ’80s when the world at large could not have cared less but those in the know felt a bond all the more profound for loving and being forever transformed by this music.

“Within Your Reach,” “I Will Dare,” “Unsatisfied,” “Answering Machine,” “Bastards of Young,” “Left of the Dial,” “Here Comes a Regular,” “Alex Chilton,” “Can’t Hardly Wait…” I have my favorites, you have yours, and few of them have diminished with the passage of time.

But the Replacements as a live experience? Well, that always was a very different story from the music on the albums.

I’ve told the tale in print, on film, and online of my first experience seeing the ’Mats at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J. circa Stink: How, after a typically sloppy and chaotic set, Westerberg’s bandmates left the stage, but he wanted to keep going, so he played drums on “Louie Louie” for another 20 minutes with a couple of fans hauled from the crowd and pressed into service.

That night sticks with me because it said, in the classic punk-rock tradition from Kingsmen to Stooges to Ramones, “I am no better than you. It’s all about being here and live and loud in the moment. You can and should do this, too!”

Replacements indeed.

A dozen more shows followed for me with that classic lineup of Westerberg, drummer Chris Mars, and brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson. Some were unforgettable: That night at C.B.G.B. when they shared a bill with Chilton—holy s*#@! But two out of three gigs honestly were complete and utter disasters, derailed by drink, drugs, inner-band disputes, the weather, Paul’s pissy moods—any and all of the above, plus who knows what else.

You didn’t embrace those shows the way that some “fans” eagerly hope for Daniel Johnston or Cat Power to have “one of those nights.” But you didn’t enjoy them, either. You’d paid your money and you’d wanted to be transformed. Still, the train wrecks never affected your fandom, because you knew that the next night, or maybe the one after that, the set could be absolutely amazing. And again, the whole point of the band as a live experience was: This is not “show business.” This is real and immediate and happening here and now in the rock-’n’-roll moment. Who knows where it will go, but come along for the ride… If you will dare, I will dare.

Because that feeling slowly but steadily eroded after Bob’s departure and the band signing to Sire, both of which contributed to an encroaching professionalism and an accompanying lack of thrilling surprises in concert, the Replacements I knew and loved were pretty much done some time before that infamous show when they literally broke up on stage in Grant Park on July 4, 1991. So I wasn’t expecting a whole lot upon their return 22 years later to the corporatized circus of Riot Fest in Humboldt Park on a soggy Sunday evening.

Bob is gone, and his replacement Slim Dunlap is recovering from a stroke. No one even bothered to call Mars; “We didn’t speak to Chris because we knew the answer before we even asked—he’d say ‘no,’” Tommy told Rolling Stone. Basically, the lineup of Westerberg, Axl Rose employee Tommy, and two hired sidemen have little more claim to calling themselves “the Replacements” than the combo of Westerberg and those kids from the crowd at Maxwell’s so many years ago.

Westerberg has every right to revisit these songs, of course, whether to reap the financial rewards he never realized back then, or to revisit past glories out of some combination of boredom, nostalgia, sentimentality, and good will. (This reunion was after all prompted by a benefit recording for Dunlap.) But better the singer and songwriter tour solo acoustic, a much more honest reflection of his dad-rock Minneapolis homebody here and now.

When it comes to “rocking out,” the Replacements that blasted away before a worshipful crowd in ankle-deep mud—Westerberg, Stinson, guitarist Dave Minehan (the Neighborhoods), and drummer Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle, Guns N’ Roses)—were a mere simulacrum of the Replacements of the second half of their career on an unexceptional night. They were solid, professional, adept—except when Westerberg screwed up the words to “Androgynous”—and at least projecting that they were having a good time.

In fact, “I’ve been having the time of my life,” Westerberg said midway through the proceedings.

But if that really was true, you’d think he’d have altered the set at least a little more from the first Riot Fest reunion gig in Toronto in August, or talked specifically to what it meant being back in Chicago. Nope. “Takin’ a Ride,” “Color Me Impressed,” “Love You ’Till Friday,” “Merry Go Round…” sure, there were plenty of favorites, but plenty more left untouched. Yet even the cover was the same as the Toronto show: “Borstal Breakout” by Sham 69. Where were the KISS covers when we needed them?

Only occasionally did the best originals on the set list seem dated. “On and on and on and on/What side are you on?,” Westerberg sang in “Left of the Dial.” “And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while/I’ll try to find you/Left of the dial.”

That song was a battle cry when it was released in ’85—an anthem lauding the sense of community in the underground world of self-published fanzines, college radio stations, mom-and-pop record stores, independent record labels, and small rock clubs. Much of that doesn’t exist anymore, and what does is in another universe from the pricey three-day passes, $7 PBR’s, national expansion plan, hardcore radius clauses, and synergistic marketing of Riot Fest.

Grouse, grouse, grouse. Didn’t veteran fans just enjoy seeing their heroes again, you ask, and weren’t younger listeners who came to love the records but never saw the band thrilled to have the opportunity now?

Sure. But don’t call it anything but nostagia, and consider whether any band of Chicagoans who decide to play Let It Be onstage as part of this city’s Halloween covers celebration probably would do just as good a job. In the end, it would mean as much in 2013: A night of entertainment, no more or less, as opposed to a night that could change your life… at least if you were lucky enough to catch the one in three back when the ’Mats were the ’Mats.

Me, I’m looking forward to Savages for the fourth time this year Monday night at Metro.

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis or join me on Facebook.