The Replacements Live (in 2015): A Review
If you, like me, were a teenage rock fan in the 1980s, then your record collection – if you still have one – includes several records by the Replacements, one of the foundational bands of our rock ‘n’ roll adolescence. Too drunk to get through most of their concerts, they wallowed in the “too cool for school” paradigm, exhibiting a Sex Pistols-like disregard for social niceties. But unlike the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, the Replacement’s front man, Paul Westerberg, was reflective about the existential angst that blooms in the hearts of teenagers as naturally as a mushroom in the forest. The anger was tempered by self-pity, the lashing-out made less stinging by a sense of complicity. While the Replacements could rock like the Ramones, they could also bring a tear to your eye.
The Replacements broke up in 1991; their lead guitarist, Bob Stinson, died in 1995. But Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson re-constituted the band for a few shows in 2013 and they are currently touring. I caught a recent show in San Francisco.
Not having seen the band since 1987, when I was still in high school, I was duly excited. And a bit leery. What would it be like? One friend begged off, saying he doubted they could be anything like they were back in the day. As it turned out, they were too much like they were back in the day.
When you are 16, your respect for a band increases with the outrageousness of its behavior. The more they stick it to The Man, the better (not that you know what that means when you are 16). If the band is falling down drunk and can’t remember how the songs go, no worries because you are drunk, too. So long as the music is loud, the beer is cold and you are out past your curfew, no harm done. In contractual terms, there is a meeting of the minds.
But at the show the other night, I was not blind drunk. Sadly, that is not a state I find myself in much these days. The band wasn’t blind drunk either – they could physically play their instruments unlike back in 1987 – but they were sloppy nonetheless. There were several false starts and entire verses of songs were jettisoned amidst belligerent drink requests to the roadies. While on one level it was amusing to see that old schtick again, more than anything else I wanted to sit the band down on a therapist’s couch and tell them it’s okay to take their music seriously – we do.
Watching the show, I was reminded of something my brother said to me a long time ago about the movie Reservoir Dogs. He said the movie’s over-the-top violence was necessary to the story; the question was whether the story was necessary. I get that the Replacements’ alcohol-infused raggedness is necessary to their story, but is that narrative a necessary appendage to the music? Or is the music so inextricably tied up with the alcoholic narrative that the question has no meaning? I pondered this while Westerberg was explaining that there are too many words to remember in “Skyway.” Dude, it’s three verses! And you wrote them! You would have thought he was talking about covering Dylan’s “Masters of War.”
I found the version of “Within Your Reach” particularly painful. I used to cry myself to sleep to that gem. The band was a train rolling over its beautiful little soul, tied helplessly to the tracks until it fizzled out without warning, sacrificed to a drink order. In terms of the set list, “Sixteen Blue” – a rumination on the emotional fragility of that particular age – was a strange choice given that everybody in the audience was at least 25 years removed from being 16. Maybe it was intended for those in the crowd with 16-year-olds at home. While many Replacements tunes still resonate years later, that one, thankfully, does not, either because I have pushed those feelings down into the substrata or because I have simply forgotten what it was like to be 16. Either way, it was a touch embarrassing watching middle-aged rockers sing about it.
But there were highlights. The encore of “Left of the Dial” (below from a concert in 2014) was a revelation, in part because of the near-deafening volume – another signature element of Replacements shows. I have always thought of that song as a “mellow-rocker,” with the verses’ snare drum rim clicks and single guitar notes giving way to pounding beats and full-throated guitar strums. But the other night, you could strike the “mellow” part of the equation. I heard the song in a completely different way, with thundering power chords you could feel as well as hear. When they kicked in, at incredible volume, it was like being dropped on a wild horse in mid-stride, the ride ferocious and graceful at the same time. The show’s deafening volume, which actually served to blunt the power of many of the songs, leaving them muddled and muted, served “Left of the Dial” brilliantly.
On balance, I was glad to have seen the show. While it was disappointing in certain respects, it did reinforce, in a sort of reverse psychology kind of way, how great their music is, how deserving it is of being taken seriously – even if the band fails to do so.