Paul Westerberg wasn't exactly thrilled to be in the Southern California desert last night. "Headed out to San Francisco, definitely not L.A.," he once sang. During his latest reunion show with The Replacements - at Coachella - he often mocked the audience, whom he quickly deemed insufficiently familiar with the band's catalog.
At one point he looked out over the crowd, asking for a "girl who has never used the word awesome," which seemed to be a dig at San Fernando Valley ladies, based a couple of hours West, who largely populated the premises.
So yeah, he was crotchety. But dammit if he didn't get away with it.
The band's material stretched from their first album, but it was immediately clear this was not a 'Mats show from the old days. They appeared right on time, with Westerberg in a bow tie and formal suit, albeit one that may have been a rental, since the tags were still on.
He slid across the stage and (from his sleeve, it appeared) produced a bouquet of cheap flowers, like a magician. Chroeography? Yeah, sort of, but mostly the performance, also featuring original bassist Tommy Stinson, drummer Josh Freese, and Dave Minehan on guitar, was just really tight. Except, of course, for the parts when Westerberg simply abandoned the song lyrics all together, as he did during much of "Androgynous." When his lyrics first dropped out he seemed upset that the crowd wasn't doing a better job of picking up the ball and running with it, and then he just seemed to want to punish us. Not unlike Andre 3000 on the main stage later that night, his body language often seemed a mixture of "too cool for school" and "fuck y'all." After asking the crowd if they wanted to hear "Achin' to Be," he clearly found the response too tepid, and visibly recoiled.
"Would you rather hear 'Psychopharmacolgy' or 'I'll Be You'?" Westerberg asked later. The crowd, naturally, cheered for the latter Don't Tell a Soul classic, rather than the obscure Grandpaboy track, to which he responded: "Bastards." But he did manage to sing almost all of "I'll Be You," which even inspired some crowd surfing. And then they played "Psychopharmacolgy" anyway. His curmudgeonly behavior wasn't solely directed at the crowd. During the faithful-to-the-original version of "Can't Hardly Wait" in the encore, Stinson, looking sharp in a plaid sports coat, orange button down, and trademark spiky hair, sidled up next to Westerberg, leaning into him. He was rocking out on his bass and trying to have one of those band-unity moments that, you know, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler are always having. But Westerberg looked visibly annoyed and when the song was over pushed him off in a way that was half joking and half not.
But these descriptions make it sound like it wasn't a life-changing show. It was; if only because, being among the handful of greatest living singer-songwriters, Westerberg can get away with anything. He has that good crack - "Color Me Impressed," "Bastards of Young," "Left of the Dial," "My Favorite Thing" - and even if he's only willing to hand it out in small, measured doses, it's still the best high going. We want to make him happy, and those in attendance who knew the whole catalog sought to make things better by singing twice as loud.
And, again, it was not like the old days where the gang was phoning it in, or drunk. Westerberg often gave his all, playing harmonica, shredding, and really singing. Ironically, he seemed to care too much. This fairly small crowd of twenty-something assholes were going to have to earn his full efforts. Returning to "Androgynous": It was bookended by a pair of mini-meltdowns where Westerberg nearly abandoned the song, but in between it was devastating. How could it not be? For those aspiring existentialists who grew up in the '80s, it's a road map for tolerance, a plea for acceptance, even if you're just a dumb straight guy.
His greatest effort was saved for "Alex Chilton," the band's ode to the late Big Star great. Perhaps the tribute let Westerberg briefly step outside of the reunion frenzy. After all, paying homage to someone who's changed your life is inspiring; God knows that's why those in attendance enjoyed the show so much. Westerberg may be the one who loves us least, but he's the one we'll die to please.
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