Nostalgia had nothing to do with the alchemy performed by the Replacements on the last night of Chicago’s Riot Fest. Maybe alchemy isn’t even the right word for what happened. The songs played were, by and large, already gold. But those songs that weren’t – is anyone out there arguing for the necessity of “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”? – were transformed anyway by a band that stomped and hollered its way through the mild, rain-haunted late summer night like it might never play again.
It wasn’t exactly a reunion. The core of the old band on stage was Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson. They were joined by guitarist Dave Minehan of the Neighborhoods, who played with Westerberg on his solo tours in the early 1990s, and drummer Josh Freese, who played with Stinson in one of those later, surreal incarnations of Guns ‘n’ Roses. But nevertheless, this three-show mini-tour was the first time more than one of the ‘Mats was playing a full set of their songs together on stage in 22 years.
A few minutes after the Pixies finished up a listless, Kim Deal-less set nearby, the Replacements stormed the stage. They cranked into their set like they were already a half-dozen shows into their latest tour, not like a group of guys who had only previously played together at Riot Fest Toronto in late August. That’s to say, things were a little raggedy at times, but only in the way that an outfit both tightly coiled and explosively loose-limbed like this could pull off.
Paul sported bright red short pants, a spiky jumble of hair, and a snarling smile that made him look like some moonlighting circus performer who hadn’t quite left his day job behind. There was no preamble to mop up the grateful applause from the gathered throng. They just slammed right into things. First they blasted out a pair of snot-nosed punk tunes from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, “Takin’ a Ride” and “I’m in Trouble,” like they were a couple of shells from a double-barreled shotgun. The rest of the first part of the set barely let up. “Hangin’ Downtown,” “Color Me Impressed” — they were all gloriously fast and loud.
Things slowed down somewhat for a sing-songy take on “Androgynous”, but smashed right back into gear with “I Will Dare” and then a tight, revved-up cover of “Maybelline” that put to shame almost everything played by other bands at the fest. It was a tight grouping that still allowed the raggedy ‘Mats of old to show up. Westerberg stumbled through “Swingin’ Party”, covering up the jumbling of lyrics by giving Minehan static about his playing, grumbling about “the Cure thing,” and then stalking over to stamp on Minehan’s pedals. That jolt of fractious chaos pulled the rug out from under the song completely and all the other players could do was stumble on to the end. But the audience mostly laughed along with the band in easy relief, just grinning with glee at being where they were and that at least the band didn’t muck up “Alex Chilton.”
Judging from the amount of middle-aged girth encased in Minnesota Twins or Hüsker Dü t-shirts, it seems fair to intuit that many in attendance were intimately familiar with the ‘Mats of old. They, unlike the whippersnappers scuttling about in Blink-182 “Crappy Punk Rock” gear, could be forgiven a little trepidation at getting one more shot at the guys who – as far as Midwest punk rock goes – were for a time the only band that mattered. But as the night sped on all too fast, it became clear there was nothing to worry about.
The set was heavy on Let It Be and Pleased to Meet Me, but particularly focused on Tim. It’s hard to imagine a better arrangement. That album stands today as the band’s strongest single collection, but it was hobbled by the kind of thin, bass-less production that afflicted many left-of-the-dial bands in the 1980s. But Westerberg and company delivered songs like the bouncy “Little Mascara” with a rawness that beautifully exploited their raucously spilling-over joy.
By the time the band finished up with “Bastards of Young” and a galloping encore of “Hold My Life” and “I.O.U.”, the crowd was alternately pumping fists in the air for the choruses and (here and there) wondering if anybody else could see that tear stubbornly clinging to the corner of their eye. It wasn’t quite nostalgia of the kind that had swept over the park the night before when the Violent Femmes delivered a note-perfect rendition of their entire first album. The mood on Sunday seemed to be more a mixture of relief, exhilaration, and giddiness that belied the general middle-agedness of most of those in attendance.
When the Replacements finally exited the stage, and the rain that had been threatening to return for the past few hours dropped its curtain across the sodden park and the gleaming carnival rides, nobody even cared that they hadn’t played “Unsatisfied”. Maybe 22 years from now, they would.