[21 August 2002]
As the soundtrack for Midwestern coming of age, one of the most lionized bitter love song writers of his generation, and the origin of Winona Ryder’s obsession with fucking rock stars, former Replacement and current cult legend Paul Westerberg has a lot of expectations to live up to. As always, he’s chosen to do so by thoroughly confounding all of them. After several years of hibernation, earlier this year Westerberg returned to the public eye by simultaneously releasing two new albums, Stereo and Mono, playing a series of free in-store appearances to his most rabid fans, then canceling the last two on a whim (including his one Michigan date), and granting promotional interviews left and right in which, depending on his mood, he either embraces his legacy or dismisses the career his admirers hold so dear as a series of missteps and disappointments. He’s clearly a conflicted soul, cognizant of his exalted place in rock history, but despising the canonization of the lovable screw-up act he’s been plying for more than twenty years. Wanting to please his public and needing the rush of playing to enrapt audiences, but holding their fandom more than a little in contempt at the same time. He’s chosen to confront this inner conflict head-on with the self-deprecatingly-titled “Come Feel Me Tremble Tour”, a club tour in which faces his fans completely solo—no backing band, no opening act, no special guests, just him, a roadie, and a supporting cast of electric and acoustic guitars.
In Detroit, Westerberg demonstrated his keen anti-rock hero fashion sense in a getup of orange plaid pajamas, shiny purple tie, and blue-tinted sunglasses, and played on a stage designed to look like a living room, complete with couch and artsy table lamp. He set the tone for the night early on, by first motioning to the notebook and lyric-filled cheat sheets on the table next to him—“a list of songs I’m supposed to follow”—and then hurling the stuff to the ground, to the audience’s laughter and applause (though almost immediately his roadie picked everything up and put it back in place so Westerberg could refer to his notes for the rest of the show). From the very beginning, the audience was with him one hundred percent, yelling out between every song with requests and avowals of devotion. Whether there was anything he could have done short of not showing up again that would not have gotten the audience behind him one hundred percent is a matter for debate.
The show started out a little shaky—heavy on newer songs and solo electric guitar, not the most forgiving medium—but by five songs in, when he pulled out the first Replacements’ tune of the night (the wistful “Achin’ To Be”) Westerberg seemed to have settled in. Of course, settling in didn’t mean there weren’t still mistakes aplenty, including lyrics flubbed or cackled over, songs started in the wrong key and restarted, and rhythms gone awry. But for Westerberg, great recorded material and screwing up that material live have always gone hand in hand, so the miscues seemed to only intensify the audience’s applause and adoration. For many the screw-ups seemed to confirm that this was the Paul they knew and worshipped; anything “tighter” would surely have been a let down. Like most Westerberg performances, this was not a time to close your eyes and let the music cast its spell; even if you somehow managed to ignore the stops and starts, you’d probably be jostled from your reverie by the guy next to you alternately screaming “Paul!” and “‘Play “Sadly Beautiful!’” at the top of his lungs.
And that’s what this show was about, pleasing the faithful, among whom I’d count myself (but, of course, there are degrees of faith and mine isn’t blind). Ownership of Westerberg’s 1993 solo debut 14 Songs plus the post-Hootenanny Replacements back catalog was definitely a prerequisite to full participation in the experience. Otherwise you’d never have been able to get in on the karaoke aspect of the night, with a highly vocal crowd who sang along with every song, new or old—so much so that sometimes one wondered whether Westerberg’s presence was even essential. Westerberg proclaimed the Detroit audience the best backup singers he’d ever had, a good thing since they had to take over for whole verses at some points, most notably on stewardess diatribe “Waitress in the Sky” and the bitterly perfect “Things”.
Allusions to other Replacements also made fan-pleasing appearances, as Westerberg once again replaced the Big Star reference in “Alex Chilton” with “G ‘N’ R” (Replacements’ bassist Tommy Stinson’s new gig), and gave a skyward nod to original Replacements’ guitarist Bob Stinson during “Swingin’ Party”. And, as always, there was that shiver that comes from hearing classic Replacements songs like “Skyway” and “I Will Dare” sung by their author live and in person, screwed up or not. But, interestingly enough, it was some of his newest songs, songs like “Between Love and Like” and “We May Be the Ones”, that received the most fully realized performances, and that made you forget momentarily about Paul Westerberg The Collective Experience and remember just what an amazing musician Paul Westerberg the individual is. It was a night simultaneously enchanting and frustrating.
Westerberg played his part in it to a tee. He exhibited his usual hilarious and wacky persona, but never let down his guard and offered little in the way of personal revelation. He suffered the endless called out requests with a smile, but ignored most of them, and even claimed to have forgotten how to play some of the more obscure ones, surely a sin if it had been committed by anyone but him. And though he played for more than ninety minutes and came out for a three song encore that closed, somewhat disappointingly, with a cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, the show ended surprisingly abruptly. Westerberg left the stage without a word, then came back out, kicked over his set’s lamp and disappeared. Maybe it was a homage to the video for “Bastards of Young”, maybe it was a carefully calculated nod to his punk roots, maybe it was an expression of frustration at so thoroughly meeting the audience’s expectations up until that point. In any case, it was the most appropriate ending he could have offered, an ending the faithful, no matter their degree of faith, surely could appreciate.