Over the weekend: Gene Ween at the Walnut Room and b.side in Boulder

Gene Ween
Saturday, May 10, The Walnut Room
Sunday, May 11, The b.side lounge
Better than:
Hearing Gene Ween play a bunch of solo songs you don't recognize.

Gene Ween (aka Aaron Freeman) perhaps best summarized the dynamic of his trio of Colorado shows early on during his first performance at the Walnut Room in Denver on Saturday. "You're listening to the roots of the song," he told the capacity crowd at the cramped venue, after a stripped-down, bare bones acoustic version of "Friends." This assessment proved an entirely apt description for the small scale shows, which will culminate in a second performance at the b.side lounge in Boulder tonight.

Gene Ween took to the stage alone -- without his partner Dean (aka Mickey Melchiondo) and the full band. He even dropped the small backing band that's accompanied him for dates on his solo tour. The result was an intimate and engaging voyage through Ween's catalogue, a performance that presented the group's most well-known numbers in a minimal format. While this lone performance, which alternated between acoustic guitar and piano, lacked the tight sound and musical acrobatics of the full ensemble, his earnestness and his knack for pure theatrics made up for the occasional stalled guitar chords and flubbed piano cues.

Despite such occasional mishaps, the shows boasted a quality that large-scale Ween performances lack, if only for their sheer volume. Gene's stark chords and deep vocal delivery on songs like "Mutilated Lips," "Even If You Don't" and "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)" gave them a new dimension and a new aesthetic. Such songs, which include overdubbed studio effects on the albums and a fuller instrumentation at full Ween shows, benefited from their minimal treatment. This solo performance revealed the songs' dynamic structural skeletons and, in the process, lent them more depth.

And many of the tunes translated surprisingly well to the acoustic format. Gene turned "The Stallion, Part 3," an installment in a musical quintet that relies on distortion, synth lines and electric effects on its original appearance on Pure Guava, into a song that seemed designed for an unplugged performance. Similarly, he drew on a minimal amount of reverb to make "The Grobe" come off naturally, despite its smaller scale.

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The performances included cues from Ween's early, lo-fi days; Gene included songs like "Little Birdy," "Don't Laugh (I Love You)" and "Loving U Thru It All," from the early albums GodWeenSatan: The Oneness and Pure Guava. The low-scale structure of the shows fit these tunes especially well -- the version of "Birthday Boy" on the first night benefited from Gene's insistent vocals and full chords, and Sunday's inclusion of "Marble to the Juicy Tree" included quick references to another early tune, "Up on the Hill." Gene largely avoided solo material in favor of selections from Ween's diverse albums and sounds.

The combination of old and new material, combined with the focus on Gene's individual talents, also helped to clarify his part in the band's overall equation. The raw, unrefined sound revealed the songs' roots, and helped to give dimension to his considerable skill as a songwriter and importance to the full band's overall sound. Even his a cappella version of "Someday" seemed revelatory -- both of the tune's durability and his inimitable voice.

Despite Gene's innate energy and natural presence, however, he couldn't make up completely for the lack of his longtime partner, Dean. Not that he didn't try: During stretches in songs like "The Golden Eel," "Tried and True" and "Mutilated Lips" that normally feature Dean Ween's guitar solos, he offered up vocalese interpretations of the instrumentals. While his scat versions of what are some very impressive solos didn't always make up for the lack of a lead guitar, they helped to spotlight his sheer stage presence. Likewise, even for all its fits and starts, his solo version of "The Argus," an epic song that features several structural shifts and demanding guitar parts, succeeded in this setting, due in part to his pure will to pull it off.

Overall, the shows seemed designed for hard-core Ween fans -- both nights boasted loud rounds of sing alongs from the crowds, and both audience displayed patience as Gene paused during certain songs. The Ween faithful can be simultaneously engaging and exasperating. This past weekend, we witnessed the best and worst parts of a rowdy Ween crowd in the microcosm of two very small venues. Although the crowd's synchronized chorus of voices and pumping fists during the first night's performance of "Don't Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy) and during the finale of "The Blarney Stone" was truly stirring, for instance, the slovenly slattern who clung to the edge of the stage and screamed the length of the second show was truly irritating.

Just the same, the energy and enthusiasm of the crowds added to the impact of the performances. Both venues were packed to capacity with fans who knew all the lyrics, who hummed along with Freeman for the solos, and who forgave him his slight missteps. This communal fervor made for an effective ambience, and seemed to help buoy Freeman through the more difficult tunes.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
"Baby Bitch" and "Birthday Boy" have a particular resonance for me in terms of personal experience, so hearing the songs played back-to-back on the first night was definitely a high point.
Random Detail: I met a local tattoo artist who had drawn impressive watercolor portraits of both of the band's eponymous members. She had run into Freeman outside the Walnut Room on the first night and promised him the portraits -- in return, he gave her free access for both of the shows.
By the Way: The song "Friends," which received a techno treatment on the album La Cucaracha, makes a damn fine acoustic ballad.

Gene Ween
Set List, Night One - the Walnut Room

"Your Party"
"Stay Forever"
"The Grobe"
"Mutilated Lips"
"Back to Basom"
"Push the Little Daisies"
"Even If You Don't"
"Happy Colored Marbles"
"Mountains and Buffalo"
"Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)"
"Loving U Thru It All"
"Birthday Boy"
"Baby Bitch"
"Tried and True"
"Chocolate Town"
"Little Birdy"
"Don't Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)"
"Don't Laugh (I Love You)"
"El Camino"
"What Deaner Was Talking About"
"Blarney Stone"
Night Two - b.side lounge
"Golden Eel"
"Don't Shit Where You Eat"
"Marble to the Juicy Tree"
"Stay Forever"
"Buckingham Green"
"Flutes of the Chi"
"Voodoo Lady"
"You Were the Fool"
"Spirit Walker"
"Tried and True"
"What Deaner Was Talking About"
"Even If You Don't"
"Now I'm Freaking Out"
"Bananas and Blow"
"Stallion Part 3"
"She's Your Baby"
"Ooh vah la"
"It's Gonna Be All Right"
"Squelch the Little Weasel
"She Wanted to Leave"
"Someday" (acappella)

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