“Are you a Replacements fan?” As I participated in the excited run-up to the Replacements homecoming show at Midway Stadium last night, friends and colleagues would occasionally ask that question—acknowledging that the event was of such historic importance in Minnesota music history that I’d pretty much have to be there even if I didn’t like the band. My answer was yes: I’m a Replacements fan.
Like a lot of people who are about my age, I’ve learned, I came to the Replacements through Paul Westerberg. When Singles came out in 1992, I was 17 years old and had just become an avid Rolling Stone subscriber. The solo songs Westerberg contributed were highly anticipated, and were certainly my far-and-away favorites on the soundtrack—sorry, Screaming Trees and Mother Love Bone.
As Martin Devaney pointed out when we had a Replacements listening party recently, it was appropriate that a man who’d so influenced the grunge scene would be included on that era-defining soundtrack—while ironic that “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody” were among the most pop-friendly material of Westerberg’s career.
In the Singles buzz there was much talk of Westerberg’s legendary former band the Replacements, and eventually I acquired every one of the band’s albums (on CD, of course). Let It Be was one of the discs in what I later came to regard as my “freshman collection”: the CDs I brought to Boston University with me in ’93, all of which ended up with water-damaged inserts when I stacked them on the floor of my closet and then hung my laundry in the closet to dry.
I continued to follow Westerberg’s on-again, off-again solo career, but missed the relatively rare opportunities to see him live. The first time I finally did see him was last night, with the band, at Midway Stadium. As the Replacements prepared to take the stage, I had a flashback memory to riding around that field in the back of a pickup truck with the rest of the St. Agnes High School homecoming royalty in the Singles era, wearing a letter jacket and waving before our scrappy football team took the field to lose to a big suburban school.
In a nod to local music history, the band took the stage to the strains of the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” a song recorded in the same Nicollet Avenue building where the Replacements later recorded Tim. Then, there they were: resplendent in matching plaid suits and launching into “Favorite Thing.” (Read Andrea Swensson’s complete review of the show, with set list and with more photos by Nate Ryan.)
It felt like a true reunion gig, despite the fact that only Westerberg and Tommy Stinson remain from the original lineup: guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, and original drummer Chris Mars wasn’t into the idea of a reunion tour. There’s such warm camaraderie, though, between Westerberg and Tommy Stinson—there was a hug to close the show, and even a kiss during it—that I kept thinking back to that Let It Be cover shot, what those four young dudes hanging out on the Stinsons’ Uptown rooftop might have guessed their future would hold. After all these years, there were Paul and Tommy, still playing “I Will Dare” and forever plaid.
Some have suggested that it would be more appropriate for Westerberg to play these songs in a quiet solo tour, but I’m with those who support the ‘Mats comeback. Really, of all the musicians who you might want to hear interpret their vintage songs in tasteful acoustic fashion, is this really the guy? Particularly given that Westerberg’s already given us two-plus decades of often tasteful, sometimes deliberately sloppy, and sometimes offhandedly exquisite solo songcraft since the band broke up, it was high time to get the band back together again, and to get a little loud about it.
Oddly, it even felt like a kind of triumph that the band didn’t so much as gesture towards any new material. I’m all for bands keeping the creative juices flowing—in fact, I’m kind of fascinated by the music artists make when they’re so established that they don’t really need to write any new songs—but almost inevitably, the new songs don’t live up to the old ones and there’s a certain perfunctory quality to the way they’re rolled out in live performances. (Yes, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, we know you still write songs, that’s nice.)
By playing only their old-school material—with a few choice covers spliced in, including the Jackson 5’s “Want You Back” in a nod to ailing bandmate Slim Dunlap—the Replacements are doing an end run around the question of new material, in a way that seems almost rebellious. Nope, they don’t have a new album coming out and nope, they’re not going to brag about how the new songs are the best they’ve ever written. The loose stage banter suggested the spirit of this Replacements reboot: “Why the hell not?” shrugged Stinson before the band launched into yet another classic.
Seeing the band play these songs three decades later, in front of an audience that included many people who’ve been fans from the beginning, brought home—so to speak—just how powerful the songs have always been. If “Unsatisfied” once gave voice to a young man’s angst, it’s just as compelling 30 years down the road. After half a lifetime of love and loss, with the Replacements and their original audience facing middle age and beyond, the song’s unanswered questions now carry a profound weight.
I came away from the show with a new appreciation of a band whose songs I’ve known for years. While the huge Midway Stadium spectacular was far removed from the Replacements’ messy romps at the Entry, I feel like I understand at least a little bit better why the band attracted such a rabid cult, and why they’re a band critics so universally love to love.
The Replacements perfectly embody a certain, cherished idea of what rock and roll means: they take the stage smoking, joking, wearing ironic pants. They make fun of the venue, they make fun of themselves, they set expectations low. Then they plug in, grin, and play some songs that will change your life.