Concert Review: The Replacements, Midway Stadium, St. Paul, Minnesota, 9-13-2014
I stood front row center on the rail for the Replacements in Minnesota, and after last night I am now not quite sure how I can see any other concert ever again.
I bought a ticket. I cashed in airline miles. I flew 1,000 miles. I booked a hotel (for two nights, because I couldn’t possibly chance flying in the morning of the show). I woke up Saturday morning, drove to St. Paul, and walked up to the gates of Midway Stadium at a little before 12 noon.
“The concert isn’t until 7 o’clock,” said some guys working inside the ballpark.
“I know,” I said, sitting down on the sidewalk next to a large concrete pig. “I know.”
I do not do things halfway.
The Replacements onstage last night were utterly brilliant. It was insane, it was fun, it was a little silly, and it was loud. It was present and future and all of those songs you know and you love and have listened to over and over again, played about as well as you are ever likely to hear them performed. I know I am not objective about this band, but last night at Midway was absolutely phenomenal and exceeded every expectation.
I had gotten on the plane from New York with the highest of hopes. “I want horns on ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’! I want special guests! I want Peter Buck to walk out and play the guitar solo on ‘I Will Dare’!” I didn’t actually expect that I would get go-go dancers, a light show and a pantomime horse (although the latter would actually make a lot more sense at a ‘Mats show than the other two), but I knew there was no way Westerberg was going to let us down at home. There were debts to repay, grievances to settle, oaths to uphold. I know I am being dramatic, and that I have spent entirely too much of my life psychoanalyzing Paul Westerberg, but after last night’s show I am pretty sure I am more right than wrong.
The crowd had been squishy but sedate through Lucero and The Hold Steady (both of whom were absolutely fantastic—not to minimize, but I am not here to talk about them, short of Craig Finn’s utterly ecstatic, “The Replacements are next” at the end of “Southtown Girls”) until the first notes of “Favorite Thing” and then the front row turned into every front row ever at a Replacements concert, with that one asshole behind you who refuses just to jump up and down and instead jumps sideways, somehow, right into your back all fucking night. I knew that “Takin’ A Ride” and “I’m In Trouble” wouldn’t improve that condition, but I am tougher than I look and I had not traveled a thousand miles to be pushed out of my spot by some jackass who probably wasn’t born yet when I was getting kicked in the head at Replacements shows up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Fuck you, I am not moving, and I am going to play air guitar along with the guitar solo in “I’m In Trouble” to boot.
They came wearing matching plaid suits, all four of them. Of course they are, said every single person in Midway Stadium, many of whom were wearing some collision of plaid in tribute themselves. (I still evaluate plaids in my head as “‘Mats plaid” or not.) This is the kind of thing that will only make sense to you if you know this band. If you do not know this band, it is not anything I can explain. And that sentence explains Replacements fandom in a nutshell; there are no half-fans of the Replacements. You love them or you hate them; you get them or you don’t. It has always been this way, and I am personally glad that it is still like this. (I’m looking at you, Coachella.)
There was not much missing from this setlist; upon reflection this morning, I decided that the two songs I would have liked to have heard were “Go” and “Johnny’s Gonna Die” (hey, Paul, how about the latter in New York next week, it would only be appropriate in the borough Mr. Genzale was born and is buried in), both of which are likely not realistic but are just personal favorites. “Go” was the first Replacements song I remember hearing, playing late at night on some college station left of the dial, and I waited for the DJ to tell me who it was and when they didn’t I picked up the phone and called. The next day I bought Stink and Sorry Ma and that was it, you know? I was a goner.
And I love the later stuff: I love “Valentine” and “Merry Go Round” just as much as I love “Hospital.” There is not much I do not love in ‘Mats land, although I kind of wince now at “Waitress In The Sky” and kind of wish they could leave that one out. I love the ballads and the pop songs and the thrashers and the anthems, and yes, they are anthems, they were big songs written to fill big spaces, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. “Color Me Impressed” is an anthem, and so are “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Alex Chilton” and “Bastards of Young”. The only thing I was sorry about being so close last night is being able to see the impact of those songs on the entire audience.
Paul came to play last night; they came to do serious business on that stage. And usually the missing piece in that equation of intent is the ability to have fun doing it. Josh Freese and Dave Minehan are fantastic partners in crime that help them do exactly that, because they are so clearly having the time of their lives up there. They love the songs and they care so much about the material, which is what differentiates them from any other players that could have been chosen to join them on this outing. Paul and Tommy can trust them with the material. Freese shares Chris Mars’ solidity and consistency, and Minehan has this voodoo-like thing going with Paul where he can pick up anything Paul drops or throws to him, or throttle it back when Paul decides he wants to play the fucking guitar, like he did last night. My enjoyment at watching Paul take parts I was looking to Minehan to handle knew no bounds last night.
And the acoustic numbers were sheer beauty. “If Only You Were Lonely” was crystal clear. I thought he was going to get through “Androgynous” all the way before throwing it to the crowd, and I love watching Tommy preemptively sing the lines to him. And I am very sure Boston did not sing it better, despite Paul’s teasing assertion.
I did not burst into tears when the band walked onstage because I was fighting for my spot, and still didn’t lose it until later. “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Bastards” were sheer crystallized joy, bright lights and grinning ear to ear; I have never sang along to these songs so loudly or with more enjoyment. I didn’t lose it until the encore, when Paul came out for “Skyway.” When we parked the car Friday night and got into the elevator, I held it up so I could take a photo of the button marked SKYWAY, these exotic things that do not exist in my world and I only know about because of the Replacements. (The first time I came to town and saw one and then the penny dropped: “SKYWAY!” I was so excited.)
But then, “Left of the Dial” and it was full on waterworks. It was because the song is so beautiful, deliberately, and it is more masterful than people probably give it credit for; the music evokes such a feeling of longing, and distance, and I am blubbering because it is so gorgeous and because it is about my world and it is a song that someone like my niece will never be able to understand, driving around late at night in the pre-Clear Channel days in a new town and turning the knob all the way to the left to find the cool radio station. I am crying because I am old, and my world is old, and Paul and Tommy (who I used to refer to as ‘the fluffy little dandelion’ back in the striped overalls days) are old, too.
But then, it is “Alex Chilton” and the children by the millions are singing along at the top of their lungs and I am singing along as if my life depended on it. I am raising my arm in the air at the St. Mark’s Place reference, I am pogoing up and down with my arm straight up in the air: “NEVER TRAVEL FAR / WITHOUT A LITTLE BIG STAR,” I scream, surprised at my own need for that particular level of vehemence tonight.
I was fine when they left the stage at that moment, because it had been so big and glorious and so very much, you know? So much. This is why I was caught completely unaware when Paul returned with a 12-string electric and started playing chords I did not recognize, and when Tommy came back and whispered in his ear I still had no clue. But then he shifted from random into straight ahead fucking focus when he hit the opening chords to “Unsatisfied,” and the world stopped turning, at least for a moment. The stars aligned, the planets paused. It is my song, you know? It is the song I play for people to explain my love of the Replacements to. It is the song for which I put forth my passionate exhortation in “Color Me Obsessed.” There is a reason there is a chapter about the Replacements and this song in my first novel. It is my song, and I am front row center, and they are playing it, and right now I don’t care but they are playing it for me. And they were playing it for them, Paul’s voice edging out on the border of the gravel, he is playing it perfectly, he is playing it straight, he is going to end this show with this performance, and none of this is offhand, or accidental. He was going to get it right, he got it right, and he knew he got it right.
At the end, after he put the guitar down, he headed straight for Tommy and grabbed him into the fiercest bear hug ever. The expressions on their faces were of triumph and relief and satisfaction and happiness. It said, “We did it,” and “We did it right.”
I watched them walk away, and the roadie walk across the stage, switching the amps off, one by one, the red lights turning to black. I am smiling, and do not stop smiling even as I fall asleep hours later, the opening chords of “Unsatisfied” still echoing in my brain.
I never make a big deal about getting set lists these days; it’s less of a badge of honor than it is a mark of someone’s ability to be an obnoxious, greedy pain in the ass yelling at the road crew to hand them something. And I watched as set lists went to various people in the audience. But then, I made eye contact with someone, and waved, and there were nods of specific approval and Paul’s setlist was carefully removed off the stage and handed over to me with specific instructions that it go to me and not to any of the other grabbing hands around me, reaching out for it.
I cannot think of a more cherished possession than that piece of paper right now.
p.p.s. I also filed a story for Billboard.com.
Enjoyed this post? Consider signing up for my monthly newsletter.