Concert Reviews

Over the Weekend: Ween at Red Rocks

Ween, Meat Puppets
Red Rocks Amphitheatre
September 5, 2009
Better than:
Seeing Gene Ween play a solo show.

Ween's live shows have always seemed better suited to smaller stages, where the soaring, sharp guitar tones of Dean Ween (aka Mickey Melchiondo, Jr.) and the tongue-in-cheek vocal stylings of Geen Ween (aka Aaron Freeman) don't get lost in excessive space.
Indeed, the band always gives a personalized performance, so the prospect of seeing them in the wide open forum of Red Rocks was somewhat suspect. After the band's show in a small club in Fort Collins and its dual performances at the Fillmore last year, and even after Gene Ween's trio of solo shows in tiny local clubs earlier this year, the grand scope of Morrison's signature stage seemed a bit too epic.

Buy my fears proved unfounded. Neither the packed feel of the 6,000-plus crowd nor the massive scale of Red Rocks deterred from the band's inimitably intimate live show. Dean Ween's solos were just as arresting and Gene Ween's vocals were just as theatric as they've been in any other performance I've seen. What's more, bassist Dave Dreiwitz, drummer Claude Coleman Jr. and keyboardist Glenn McClelland offered their usual brand of solid rhythm accompaniment and impressive solos.

The only complaint by the end of the night was what seemed like the brevity of the show. Even with a set that spanned more than two hours, the band left the crowd wanting more. Maybe we'd been spoiled by two consecutive nights of the band at the Fillmore last year, or by three nights of Gene Ween's solo shows earlier this summer. In the end, we were clamoring for a three-hour stadium show, one that would fit the last gig in the band's latest touring schedule. And any initial worries about the huge size of the theater had morphed into a thirst for a performance that was more epic.

As an opening band, the Meat Puppets helped make the large size of Red Rocks seem much smaller. The trio offered a consistent set with a reliable rock formula, a program that created the illusion of a small, indie rock club. The outfit began most of its tunes with dynamic, string-heavy intros and solid opening verses, followed by lengthy, meandering guitar solos by Curt Kirkwood. A reiteration of the opening verse and chorus would usually follow. While the pattern wore a bit thin by the end of the Meat Puppets' hour-long set, it also yielded many enjoyable moments. The honky-tonk, finger picked guitar patterns in tunes like "Backwater" added another dimension to the group's basic, alternative rock structure. Buoyed by an assailable amount of energy from bassist Cris Kirkwood and drummer Ted Marcus, the band's straightforward blending of punk, alternative rock and country ingredients made for an engaging introduction to the main act.

It only took fifteen or twenty minutes to break down the Meat Puppets' gear, and by the time Ween wrapped up its first tune, "Pork Roll Egg and Cheese," it was clear why the group was headlining. Dean's tightly phrased chords, combined with Gene's plaintive, searching vocals, made for a captivating debut. As the group continued with tunes pulled from more than thirty years' worth of material, the band's polish only seemed to get brighter. As the guys easily belted out versions of "Bananas and Blow," "Now I'm Freaking Out," "Learning to Live" and "My Own Bare Hands," all the elements that have made Ween wear the test of time were on display. The Dadaist, post-modern humor; the acrobatic guitar solos from Dean that summon hints of Hendrix and echoes of defiant punk progenitors; Gene's wide-eyed, enthused vocal delivery and suggestive rhythm guitar - all of these ingredients didn't suffer from the airy stretches and massive scope of Red Rocks.

The combination of these factors helped spell out why Gene Ween's solo shows felt as if they were missing some essential component. All of the band members worked off of each other's strengths -- Gene disappeared behind the amps for some of Dean Ween's most involved guitar solos on songs like "Man and Woman," and a three-part harmony by Gene, Dean and Dreiwitz on "Fantasy" made for a much more captivating effect than Gene Ween's performance of the same tune earlier this year.

Similarly, the group's performance of the instrumental "Ice Castles" from White Pepper sounded more well-honed and refined than the performance of the tune at the Fillmore last year. The act also found plenty of chances to spotlight the skills of the rhythm section. The introduction to "Don't Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)" saw rhythmic interplay between Gene Ween's guitar and Claude Coleman's drums, while "The Mollusk" included exaggerated synth effects from Glenn McClelland's keyboards. Coleman also took the vocals for a performance of the obscure tune, "The Final Alarm."

While the band maintained an intimate feel in spite of the size of the venue, the performance had the inescapable feel of a stadium show at times. Billows of smoke from several machines, as well as carefully coordinated lighting effects, lent the set a theatric sense, while the echo of the massive crowds chants helped put the scope of the concert in context. Before launching into the second-to-last song during the encore, the entire band took a few minutes to gaze out into the massive crowd and marvel at its size. The pause made the audience throw a mass of glo-sticks onto the stage.

In the twenty-song set, Ween didn't include any acoustic songs, an omission that stood out. The set pulled from many eras and many albums, but seeing Gene and Dean play slower songs from 12 Golden Country Greats would have added another dimension to the show. But as the band finished up its encore, any complaints seemed insignificant at best. Offering the full qualities of a grandiose size arena with the approachability of a club performance impossible, but Ween did a pretty damn good job of pulling it off at Red Rocks.

Personal Bias:  I'm always fascinated by the group's contemporary live performances of older tunes. At Red Rocks, my ears perked up for the live versions of songs like "Touch My Tooter," "Don't Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)," "Pork Roll Egg and Cheese" and "Dr. Rock" from the albums The Pod and Pure Guava.
Random Detail: The merch booths were selling a limited edition poster from the show, one that imitated the cover of Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Depictions of Gene and Dean were in the place of Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, while a cartoonish image bearing the head of the group's logo, Boognish, stood in Jimi's place. The poster sold out within minutes after the gates opened.
By the Way: Gene Ween played mandolin during the live performance of "Ocean Man."


09/07/09 - Red Rocks Amphitheatre

1. Pork Roll Egg and Cheese
2. Bananas and Blow
3. Now I'm Freaking Out
4. Learning to Love
5. My Own Bare Hands
6. Did You See Me?
7. Transdermal Celebration
8. Take Me Away
9. Don't Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)
10. Woman and Man
11. Zoloft
12. Your Party
13. Beacon Light
14. Stroker Ace
15. Voodoo Lady
16. Ice Castles
17. Final Alarm
18. Gabrielle
19. Touch My Tooter
20. Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony
21. Ocean Man
22. I'll Be Your Johnny On Th' Spot
23. Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)
24. Buckingham Green
25. Dr. Rock

1. Fiesta
2. The Mollusk
3. Roses Are Free