It’s hard to keep any idea fresh for five consecutive years, but this year’s annual Tribute to the Replacements managed to somehow up the ante once again by pulling in special guests and a few special front-to-back performances of ‘Mats albums to create an unforgettable five-hour, post-Thanksgiving marathon.
The entire concept of paying tribute to a band like the Replacements is rife with paradoxes. They are a band that, by all accounts, does not want to be celebrated. When asked about his thoughts on the recent Replacements documentary Color Me Obsessed, Paul Westerberg recently expressed embarrassment over the attention, saying that his first thought was Why don’t you get a life? “That thing, the R band, the ‘Mats, they don’t even really belong to us anymore,” he said, aptly summarizing the way that the band’s legacy has grown much larger than life in the 20 years since their split.
And yet Westerberg himself reclaimed the Replacements namesake this year, recording a new EP under that moniker with ‘Mats bandmate Tommy Stinson to help raise money for their ailing late-career guitarist, Slim Dunlap. In Minneapolis, the deep and enduring impact of the Replacements has seemingly never waned; Jim Walsh’s oral history of the band helped launch the annual tribute tradition at First Avenue five years ago, and bands from here to Brooklyn still cite them as a lasting influence on modern rock music.
So how does one pay tribute to a band that would roll their eyes at the very idea of being honored with such an event? It’s a razor’s edge that the organizers behind the Tribute to the Replacements — First Ave’s booker Sonia Grover and E.L.nO.’s/the Current’s Dave Campbell — have walked by pulling in acts that they know will do the songs justice, including some bigger names in the local scene. But therein lies paradox #2: When you’re covering a band that was notorious for hit-or-miss performances that were sometimes on-point and sometimes gloriously awful, how in the hell is a performer supposed to interpret their work “correctly”?
These are the questions I found myself mulling over for the majority of this year’s tribute, which ended up being the most emotional and satisfying showcase yet. As Chris Riemenschneider pointed out, the night was divided into four fairly distinct sections: A sweet, tender “Hootenanny for Slim” kicked off the night, with Curtiss A, Jim and Terry Walsh, Martin Devaney, and several other acoustic guitar-wielding, plaid-shirted songwriters taking turns covering Slim Dunlap’s solo tunes. The middle of the evening was reserved for a handful of mini-sets, including a performance of many of the ‘Mats’ mid-career hits performed by Dave Campbell and Story of the Sea. And the apex consisted of two passionate, star-studded run-throughs of complete albums, starting with Pink Mink and friends playing Stink in honor of its 30th anniversary and ending with the Melismatics and a rotating crew of vocalists tackling Pleased to Meet Me.
Some musicians carried lyrics sheets. Some fumbled over words and blushed at their missteps. And some performed so perfectly that their hours of preparation and practice were readily apparent. There was plenty of booze flowing through the joint, but most on stage remained confident and composed, obviously relishing the opportunity to play songs they so greatly admired on such a large stage. And for the most part, that was all just fine — the fans that turn out for this event don’t seem to want to hear wildly unfaithful interpretations of these well-worn songs. People want to be able to nod and dance and sing along. But when the singers took it a step further and threw themselves fully into their performances with that hard-to-pinpoint combination of whiskey-soaked irreverence and balls-out brazenness, all while wearing their hearts on their sleeves? That was when the real magic happened.
The evening peaked with two clear-cut highlights. The first came at the end of Pink Mink’s performance of Stink (all of which was executed powerfully), when the band brought out Greg Norton of Hüsker Dü, Shawn Walker of Gay Witch Abortion, and Joe Hastings to beef up the band for a thunderous, soul-singing rendition of “Gimme Noise.” The dual drummers and Norton’s bass shook the walls of the club and left many near the front of the stage with mouths agape, while Pink Mink’s Christy Hunt and Arzu Gokcen screamed those wonderful words “I can’t figure out music for boys, gimme noise! Gimme noise!” and Hastings threw his guitar up in the air.
The second highlight came near the end of the entire event, when Craig Finn made a surprise appearance to perform an uplifting cover of “Skyway” that had the room hugging and swaying along. All I could think was THIS IS SO MINNEAPOLIS, my home team pride at an all-time, holiday-bolstered high.
Even as these moments came and went, I couldn’t stop contemplating why they were so hair-raising. It had a lot to do with the “star power” of those performances, I’m sure, but I think the monstrousness of those moments extended beyond the fact that the players were famous. Musicians like Finn and Norton, plus Paddy Costello of D4 (who tore through “Stuck in the Middle” with Pink Mink) and Hideo Takahashi of Birthday Suits (who sang “F*** School”) are consummate performers and they clearly know and love these songs, covering them passionately while injecting their own distinctive personalities. I think a good cover means losing oneself in the music, because it helps others to get lost in that wash of sound and static and sentimentality, too. In those fleeting moments, the musicians weren’t just helping longtime ‘Mats fans steep in their own nostalgia — they were making history for the next generation of music lovers. And that’s when I decided to finally stop overthinking it and start celebrating this wondrous, crazy night along with the rest.
Select set lists from the evening:
Story Of The Sea with Dave Campbell: Color Me Impressed / Left of the Dial / Bastards of Young / Buck Hill / Talent Show / I’ll Be You / Achin’ to Be
Belfast Cowboys: Hangin’ Downtown / Kiss Me on the Bus / Portland / Busted Up (Slim Dunlap) / Hold My Life /
Lucy Michelle: I Will Dare / Mr. Rabbit / Androgynous / Unsatisfied / Sixteen Blue / Swingin Party /
The Fattenin Frogs: I Will Dare / Shooting Dirty Pool / White And Lazy / Bundle Up / Take Me Down to the Hospital
Blue Ruin: Raised in the City / Shiftless when Idle / Gimme Noise / Favorite Thing / Kiss me on the Bus / Color Me Impressed
Red Daughters: Bastards Of Young
Pleased To Meet Me
1. I. O. U. – The Melismatics
2. Alex Chilton – Eric Pollard
3. I Don’t Know- Martin Devaney
4. Nightclub Jitters – Lucy Michelle
5. The Ledge- John Swardson
6.Birthday Gal- Nick Leet
7. Never Mind- Orion Treon
8. Valentine- Vandy
9. Shooting Dirty Pool- Gabe Douglas
10. Red Red Wine- Arzu
11. Skyway- Craig Finn
12. Can’t Hardly Wait- Curtiss A
Of course there were many, many more highlights throughout the night. Erik Thompson (who recently wrote about the historical significance of Pleased to Meet Me on this here blog) has a nice play-by-play of the action over on Gimme Noise, and you can see more of Ben Clark’s photos from the night below.