If you walked down Chicago’s Halsted Street on the particularly frigid night of January 31, you might have shuffled by the Tonic Room without a passing glance, the tiny bar not on your radar as you looked for Friday night inebriation elsewhere. For a very lucky few, what was happening inside the Tonic Room that night was something special, a rare moment of musical intimacy for attendees to look back on years from now and say, with a hint of cool modesty, “Yeah, I was there.” For Ween fans, Aaron Freeman aka Gene Ween playing a tiny, acoustic concert is akin to Bruce Springsteen playing a secret bar show in Jersey. Through special invitation, the invite only concert came about as a celebration for The Tonic Room’s Sixth Anniversary and bar owner and Ween fanatic Nick Nepo could not think of anyone better to celebrate the occasion. “I made a small list of artists who we could maybe get, and who would be ridiculously cool to have come play, and Gene was at the top of that list,” said Nepo. “I’m a huge Ween fan, and a lot of the bar’s regulars love the band, so it just seemed like a natural choice.”
The doors opened at eight, and as I approached the bar, people were lined up on the street, huddled into small, smoky circles. There was a celebratory vibe, as many folks hugged and traded war stories from concerts past. Inside, the 99-body capacity space quickly filled, and the bar was slammed as everyone took full advantage of the open bar. With many donating lump sums to make the night a possibility, Nepo was gracious to supply the crowd with free drinks and complimentary posters. “Everyone who was here was really meant to be here,” said Nepo. “I was definitely afraid in the weeks leading up to the night, that too many people were going to find out about it, and I’d start getting bombarded with phone calls and emails. I told everybody that if they kept quiet, and tried to keep it a secret, that it would be a really special night.” As the hours ticked away and 11 pm approached, the anticipation in the bar became palpable. The tiny stage, adorned with a lone microphone, quickened the pulse, and drunken shouts of “Gener” began to echo throughout the room. Suddenly, just a shade before 11:30 pm, Gene appeared from the basement with acoustic guitar and harmonica in hand, and an impish grin on his face. “Well, this is your party,” he said. “What do you want me to play?”
The set began with a mellow cover of Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why”, from After the Gold Rush. Removing the harmonica harness, Gene smiled and announced that he had never played the instrument live. For what quickly became the norm for the night, fans shouted song requests incessantly, and Gene would occasionally cock an ear and smile, launching into warts and all variations on old classics from the Ween songbook. As one half of the core duo of Ween, partner Dean Ween handles lead guitar duties, so it’s forgivable that the set was not without flubs and abandoned songs, with Gene forgetting lyrics and whistling guitar solos. The set was all interaction and the spirit of the night clearly filled Gene with love and appreciation. Halfway through the first set, talented local musician and gunslinger for hire George Holdcroft was invited onstage to play saxophone for a silky smooth version of “Your Party” from Ween’s latest release La Cucaracha. All eras of Ween were touched upon in the set, from the bitter “Birthday Boy” off Ween’s first official album, 1990’s God Ween Satan to the trippy, sing along insanity of 1997’s “The Mollusk”.
After a short cigarette break, Gene returned to the stage just before 1:00 am and kicked off the second set with a string of a cappella Prince covers, his distinctive falsetto the perfect pitch to do the songs justice. After an audience assisted cover of “Purple Rain” Gene led the crowd in the faux Irish drinking ditty “The Blarney Stone”. A trademark of any Ween show, beer flew as performer and crowd belted out the opening line “Get off my ass, you wee bitty fuck,” in unison. Following some solid guitar work capturing the country twang of “Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off my Brain” from 1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats, a sweaty and spent Gene wiped his brow.
After extending his hand to a beautiful, albeit starstruck girl in the front row for an assisted “Right to the Ways and the Rules of the World”, the night came to an end. Gene smiled and shook hands, and disappeared back into the basement. In retrospect, it is impossible to critique the night from any kind of objective, journalistic prospective. That would be to miss the whole point of the experience. If you were there, you were meant to be there. I am glad I was, and as I hung my framed commemorative poster on the wall, I couldn’t help but smile.