Never given their due for pioneering the kind of mandarin genre-hopping that made the careers of, say, Beck, possible, Ween has lingered at an unclassifiable fringe of the indie-rock scene for 15 years, producing album after virtuosic album without ever really being taken seriously. Since Phish started covering them in concert, though, Ween has seemed to morph into something of a hippie jam band themselves, suddenly playing events like Bonaroo while attracting a spillover crowd from the likes of Leftover Salmon and Moe.
The elements for this transformation had always been there: Like all hippie jam bands, Ween has frequently nonsensical lyrics full of self-referential inside humor, wah-wah-saturated guitar solos with a propensity to meander, songs capable of being stretched indefinitely, and, of course, drug cues a plenty. And like most jam bands, Ween had been developing their fan base in an organic, ad-hoc way: Ween owes their popularity, such as it is, not to marketing campaigns or hyper-engineered singles or fawning media coverage but to frequent touring and generous sets that last for hours and typically produce flashes of true spontaneity. But unlike most jam bands, Ween is never self-indulgent, despite their unpredictability, their omnivorous musical appeitites, and their tendency toward excess.
They may have gained early notoriety by being mocked in a episode of Beavis and Butthead that played repeated on MTV in the ’90s, but they overcame the novelty-act tag critics wanted to stick them with by pursuing the logic of novelty to its absurd end point, way past willful perversity and commercial viability into near total solipsism, adhering to no particular formula while following any impulse, no matter how discontinuous with the rest of their career (follow an all-country album with a prog-rock opus about the seafaring life? Sure!). And thus they have come to embody a kind of pure freedom, the ability to do whatever the hell you want, which is the main fantasy rock music indulges, the dream it most successfully conveys. (This is also why Ween’s song “Ocean Man” works so effectively in a Honda commercial. Hopefully they’ll use “Booze Me Up and Get Me High” next.)
Their routinely excellent live shows are where Ween makes this freedom most palpable, so it makes sense that some fans would want this souvenir from their recent tour supporting 2003’s Quebec to remind them of the unencumbered feeling the band can inspire. Since it’s a memento, this two-disc CD/DVD combo doesn’t really withstand much critical scrutiny. It’s not meant to be analyzed; it’s meant to be an audiovisual scrapbook evoking vivid memories of having actually been there, if not at these specific shows then at any of their recent dates — kind of like the live albums the Stones have been putting out since 1981’s Still Life. This collection, from two nights at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, is not especially inspired. That’s not to say it isn’t competent and satisfying; it’s just that the band doesn’t attempt anything new or unusual, or descend into the legendary chaos veteran Ween concertgoers have likely experienced.
The material here doesn’t live up to the standard set by the 1999 live compilation Paintin’ the Town Brown, and it certainly doesn’t match the essential Live in Toronto Canada, which documented Ween’s honky-tonk incarnation, featuring Nashville session players and countrified reinterpretations of their catalog. The deluxe arrangements captured there were startling, revealing just how much ornament Gene and Dean’s songs can withstand, demonstrating how strong their songwriting has always been. But on Live in Chicago there is nothing revelatory in their renditions of their standard fare (“The HIV Song”, “Take Me Away”, “Baby Bitch”, “Spinal Meningitis”); if anything, away from the heat of actually being in the club, these versions sound a little impatient, as if after a few measures the band can’t wait for the next song — not out of boredom, but of over-eagerness perhaps. Other times, they sound like their own tribute band, so assured are they in their material, so settled are they in their shtick, so content are they to please their fans. And fans won’t be displeased with these discs; they just aren’t likely to convert any new fans or make them understand what the fuss over Ween’s live shows is all about.
The 70-minute CD concentrates on material from Chocolate and Cheese or later, and the DVD mixes in some obvious choices — “You Fucked Up”, “Doctor Rock”, “Touch My Tooter” — from the earlier albums. It also includes an inspired cover of Led Zeppelin’s “All of My Love”, which extends Ween’s tradition of exhuming schmaltzy rock ballads and breathing fresh life into them by refusing to treat them with disdainful irony. Visually, the DVD is exemplary, editing together clear, well-shot and well-lit footage from a several different camera angles with a appropriately paced sense of when we would grow bored with what we’re seeing. But no amount of dynamic cutting can make the band more exciting on stage. They are what they are, a bunch of middle-aged guys playing music skillfully, with a minimum of showmanship or posturing. After a while it feels like you’re seeing what would have been on the Jumbotron had this been an arena show, and despite the frequent close-ups, you begin to have a feeling of being very far away.