“I’m an old hand at this,” the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg cracked as he ripped out and threw away a clock at his feet that was supposed to keep him from blowing curfew Sunday at rain-soaked Riot Fest in Humboldt Park. “I’m a music business professional.”
The joke was not lost on an audience of 35,000 who witnessed the Minneapolis band’s first Chicago show in two decades, the same city where they broke up on stage in 1991. The Replacements found countless ways to screw up on and off stage, while writing and recording some of the most moving and memorable songs of the indie-rock ‘80s.
The band was a couple members short from their Grant Park farewell gig 22 years ago. Drummer Steve Foley, who replaced founding drummer Chris Mars, died in 2008. Guitarist Slim Dunlap suffered a stroke in 2012. Only founding members Westerberg and Tommy Stinson remain, abetted by drummer Josh Freese and guitarist David Minehan.
After pursuing solo careers (with Stinson also doing a stint in Guns N’ Roses), Westerberg and Stinson got together last year to record a handful of songs and released an EP, with proceeds going to help defray Dunlap’s medical expenses. The duo then agreed to perform three reunion concerts; the first came in August in Toronto and the final one will occur next weekend in Denver.
For a band that thrived on an anything-goes approach to performing, the Riot Fest show ran with relative precision, with barely a pause between songs. Despite tossing the clock, Westerberg and the boys finished precisely at 10:30 p.m. Everything on the set list was at least 23 years old. But the 25-song, 75-minute performance brimmed with energy and heart. Nostalgia it was, but there was nothing formulaic or phoned-in about it.
Looking like thrift-shop dandies with their splashy mismatched clothes and spiky hair, Westerberg and Stinson cracked jokes, blew a few lyrics, and laughed like they were just banging out tunes in their garage. They stayed loose but kept the pace brisk, with plenty of help from Freese’s dynamic drumming and the bow-tied Minehan’s concise lead guitar.
Westerberg’s voice sounded appropriately rough and gritty on the opening “Takin’ a Ride,” the first song on the first Replacements album, “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash” (1981), and the sneering “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.” But he also found the tenderness in a song (“Androgynous”) that rhymes “kewpie dolls” with “urine stalls.”
For many fans, it was a chance to hear songs that defined a certain mind set, trapped between adolescence and adulthood, innocence and cynicism, fear and bravado: “One foot in the door/the other one in the gutter.”
During the wistful “Swingin’ Party,” Westerberg glanced at Minehan and winced at the reverberating guitar tone. “Can we lose that Cure thing?” he joked.
The lack of self-seriousness, the self-deprecating attitude – it was always part of the Replacements’ beautiful-loser persona. But it was only part of their appeal. At Riot Fest, they ran through a career that nodded to punk, hardcore, glam, country and saloon ballads (not for nothing did they enter to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”), and worked in snippets of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” and Hank Williams Sr.’s “Hey Good Lookin',” while covering songs from Chuck Berry and U.K. punks Sham 69.
Their “Alex Chilton” imagined a world where “children by the millions” worship the underappreciated Memphis rocker. “I’m in love with that song,” they sang. Westerberg and Stinson weren’t so much rock stars reliving their past, as fans reaffirming their passion for the music that made them want to pick up guitars in the first place.
Replacements set list Sunday at Riot Fest:
1 Takin’ a Ride
2 I'm in Trouble
3 Favorite Thing
4 Hangin’ Downtown
5 I Don’t Know
6 Color Me Impressed
7 Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out