Can’t Hardly Wait
During the lead up to The Replacements’ concert at St. Paul’s crumbling minor league baseball park, Midway Stadium, the event was widely acknowledged as a homecoming celebration of epic proportions. Their first show in the Twin Cities since 1991 included fellow Minneapolis (by way of Brooklyn) rockers The Hold Steady and Memphis twang merchants Lucero, and for both the band and the 14,000 in attendance, many of whom tailgated for hours in the parking lot outside the stadium, it clearly had all the hallmarks of a homecoming.
Indeed, the warm nostalgia and pent-up demand for these hometown heroes who helped build and define (and in many ways personify) the legendary Minneapolis music scene of the 1980s was so great that show sold out in under 10 minutes. But the ‘Mats (short for “Placemats,” as they were lovingly christened by Minneapolis scenesters back in the day) of yore were infamous for (often drunkenly) self-destructing in the face of hype and heightened expectations, so it was unclear whether the band would rise to the occasion or relapse into its lovable loser persona. Were they going to conquer the world or shit the bed?
By the end of the nearly two hour, 31-song set that showcased the entire arc of their career, the answer was triumphantly clear: the modern incarnation of The Replacements is worthy of the band’s legacy and legend as one of the most incendiary live acts in the history of rock n’ roll.
A Unified Scene
There was a crisp autumn chill in the air as we made our way to the stadium through a sea of beflanneled, bespectacled men (and more than expected) women in their 40s and 50s, each with their own personal story about a famous or infamous Mats concert of yore. As 89.3 The Current counted down the Top 30 Replacements songs, simultaneously blasted on stereo systems throughout the parking lot, we overheard two separate stories that ended with “and then Tommy [Stinson, the band’s bassist] puked.” But, tellingly, there were also a significant portion of the crowd too young to have seen the band in its heyday– guys and girls in their 30s, 20s and teens (a lot of parents seemingly seeking to round out their kids’ musical education) who grew up hearing stories of the band’s onstage antics.
People had gone all out with food, charcoal grills, coolers, generators and external PA systems. There was a real camaraderie in this crowd — we all knew each other, even if we’d never met– each face a archetypal reminder of a teenage friend, an older brother, or an ex girlfriend. This was a sea of 80s and 90s outsiders who once lived for the scene and were eager to revisit a time that still informs their worldview. For each of them, the connection to the Replacements remains intensely personal. Paul Westerberg’s lyrics were the purest expression of our vulnerabilities, as if he was privy to the content of each our diaries. The band’s albums were not only the soundtracks of our lives, they were the lasting standard by which our relationship with all future music would be measured.
Which is why Lucero and The Hold Steady are the perfect choice to open this show — they too are unabashed and unrepentant Replacements fans, each openly acknowledging the band’s influence on their own music.
The democratized, “we are all in this together” spirit of the evening was embodied/further catalyzed by the fact that the entire show, from the field to the benches in the stands, was general admission – everybody could sit or stand where they wanted. Access down the side to the front of the stage was relatively unfettered until The Replacements came on. And, with a couple of grumpy, graying exceptions, the entire crowd was the embodiment of “Minnesota Nice.”
Nights Like These
As the sun descended over the lip of the stadium, Lucero kicked off the evening with a short, tight, 35-minute set of growly alt-country favorites. Their song selection, perhaps in a nod to the enormity of the evening, tended toward more plaintive and reflective mid-tempo material than their fist-pumping, full-throated anthems, but the crowd down front sang along with every word–“nights like these make me sleep all day.” Lead singer Ben Nichols summed up the evening’s sentiments for many of us when he exclaimed after a couple songs, “Are you kidding me? The Hold Steady and the Replacements? Ain’t no way I’m behaving tonight!”
Shortly thereafter, The Hold Steady took the stage with equal parts exuberance and humility, Craig Finn giving a heartfelt benediction about how meaningful this opportunity was to a kid who grew up going to shows in Minneapolis. Wasting no time, the band kicked into high gear with “Your Little Hood Rat Friend,” which instantly sent the crowd into a pogoing frenzy. Their 11-song set spanned their entire career and focused heavily on their songs with geographic and pop cultural references to the Twin Cities, much to the delight of the adoring crowd.
Finn never stop smiling and gesticulating wildly throughout the show, showing the unbridled joy of a little brother who finally gets to open for his big brother’s rock band. It should be noted that it has now become clear that new guitarist Steve Selvidge (formerly of Lucero) has fully integrated into the band, and he and founding guitarist Tad Kuebler traded fat classic rock riffs, fills, and solos like an indie rock version of Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards (and sometimes like a modern day Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing.) The band ended with “Southtown Girls,” and the crowd, stocked with its fair share of Southtown girls and boys, chanted along with every word as though reading from the Scriptures. “Our psalms are sing-along songs” indeed.
Although their intended final song, “Stay Positive,” had to be cut due to time constraints, there was no worry about the crowd’s ability to stay positive throughout the evening. While The Hold Steady are a stellar headlining act in their own right, they did what every great opening band should do: pump up the crowd and set the stage for the headliner.
Dose of Thunder
After a break barely long enough to accommodate navigation of the beer (Grain Belt, natch) and Port-a-John lines, the Replacements bounded onstage to the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” wearing matching cream and black plaid suits. With one word from Paul (“Hello”– what more was there to say at this point?), they launched into a muscular version of “Favorite Thing,” off of 1984’s Let It Be. Then, setting the tone for the rest of the night, they quickly counted four and tore into early punkish faves “Takin’ a Ride,” “I’m in Trouble” and “Don’t Ask Why,” at a relentless pace. They were not here to mess around and Paul in particular seemed to be on a mission. (As fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan once wryly noted on Blood on the Tracks, “The hangin’ judge was sober; he hadn’t had a drink.”)
Tommy bounced around the left of the stage amiably, looking like a jovial Sid Vicious, but playing with clinical precision. From the onset, it was clear that the band had put a considerable amount of practice into this show, and the musicianship was improbably tight (yet appropriately loose — it’s the Mats after all).
Paul’s voice was throaty (he may be off the booze, but not the smokes!), full and confident, but there were the inevitable (and endearing) forgotten lyrics and muffed lines (followed by smiles and shrugs) that fans have come to expect (and love) over the years. Josh Freese manned the drum set with thunderous sticks and the authority of a human metronome; his playing brought heft and fullness to the band’s sound. Nevertheless, purists and sentimentalists in the crowd still missed Chris Mars (the band’s original drummer, who has not joined this reunion).
Throughout, guitarist Dave Minehan, a sideman from Westerberg’s solo tours of a decade ago, seamlessly interpolated with Paul’s playing, demonstrating a lilting, rhythmic deftness in his fills and solos. In terms of style, he was Mick Jones to Paul’s Joe Strummer (but don’t be fooled — Paul is a much more accomplished guitarist than he’d have us believe).
The band then shifted gears and went from red-lining the engine to a more sustainable pace of RPM, jumping forward several albums and almost a decade for the (almost) radio hit “I’ll Be You.” They then settled into an eclectic set list that ping-ponged effortlessly between albums and showcased the broad emotional spectrum of Westerberg’s writing.
This was the band’s eleventh show since reforming, but its first full concert (the others were slots at major musical festivals). This gave the band a chance to play more songs and bounce around their catalogue rather than marching through it chronologically. The hits kept coming — “Valentine” (from 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me), the boozy country barroom favorite “Waitress in the Sky,” (from 1985’s Tim), then back to punk thrash for “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” (which morphed effortlessly into Jimi Hendrix‘ “Third Stone From the Sun”) and “Take Me Down to the Hospital.”
With a softness for 70s AM pop radio, and an encyclopedic mastery of the rock ‘n roll canon, The Replacements have always dipped deep into the popular music songbook for their cover songs, and tonight was no exception, with the band playing fun, rollicking versions of the Jackson 5‘s “I Want You Back,” Chuck Berry‘s “Maybeline,” and Sham 69‘s “Borstal Breakout.”
Color Me Impressed
The band was focused, but spent time in between songs laughing and trading barbs with each other and the crowd. The band’s trademark self-deprecating humor was on full display throughout, with Tommy introducing one thrashy song from their earlier catalog by proclaiming “get a load of this piece of shit.”
The light show was minimal (mostly a bank of white and yellow) and the “pyrotechnics” were limited to a fog machine that belched out periodic, meager bursts of smoke. This was not a show that had to rely on anything other than the presence of this band in this city among this crowd.
In keeping with this aesthetic, it became clear over the course of the night that swirling rumors of multiple musical guests from Minneapolis’ golden age (Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü, Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, Prince) were to prove unfounded — this was a Replacements-only show. The band seemingly wanted to prove they could do it on their own, thereby avoiding the distraction (and tempo disruption) of a procession of outside folks. Even Green Day‘s Billie Joe Armstrong, who had guested with them at a half dozen recent shows, was missing. The lone musical guest turned out to be septuagenarian Twin Cities harmonica virtuoso Tony Glover, who joined the band for a bluesy cover of “Going to New York” by Jimmy Reed.
The rest of the set washed over the crowd like a wave of nostalgia and euphoria. Fan favorites (“Kiss Me on the Bus”), singles (“I Will Dare,” “Merry Go Round”) mixed with lesser-known gems (the adorable teenage country ditty “If Only You Were Lonely”) to form a warm, seamless quilt of the band’s ten year musical output. Irrespective of the subject matter – from the transgender dysphoria of “Androgynous” to the hungover regret of “Swinging Party” to the adolescent defiance of “I Won’t” – the crowd sang along to every word with reverence.
By the time the band launched into the home stretch of its home stand with some of its best songs– “Bastards of Young,” “Alex Chilton,” “Left of the Dial” — everybody onstage and off was pulsating with the electricity and poignancy of the moment. We weren’t just witnessing something special, we were a part of it.
Hold My Life
People flung their arms around each other when Paul donned an acoustic 12-string for the plaintive ballad “Skyway,” that Edward Hopper–worthy paean to modern urban isolation. As he stood alone on the stage without the band, his vulnerability on full display, we were up there with him. Because like Paul Westerberg, our punk nihilism and youthful idealism had transformed into a knowing, bittersweet realization that we are a few decades closer to mortality.
But the reverie of the moment didn’t last long as the band joined Paul onstage, cranked up the amps and punched us in the face with a molten dose of Pleased to Meet Me roadhouse brawlers “I Don’t Know” and “I.O.U.”
When the band came back for an unlikely second encore after turning off their amps, there was a resignation that took hold. The majesty and magic of the night was coming to an end. As the band launched into perhaps the greatest of all Replacements songs, “Unsatisfied,” their rarely played live, heart wrenching retort to the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” the crowd chanted in unison those sadly beautiful final words: “Look me in the eye, then tell me that I’m satisfied.”
But for this brief, brilliant moment, as Paul and Tommy hugged and bounded offstage with their arms thrown round each other, we truly were satisfied. Because this was our night, this was our life, and this was our music–on full display, in full stereo.