Review: The Replacements at Riot Fest Toronto, August 25, 2013

Before last night, I wasn’t going to write about the Replacements reunion at Riot Fest. My husband Matt and I traveled five-odd hours to Toronto simply as fans looking to see a bunch of musicians we both admire play a bunch of songs we love. But after the band’s way-too-brief 75-minute headlining set last night, I realized I had a few things to say.

I had no expectations going in, well aware of the band’s reputation as being a hit-or-miss live act. And I was afraid of being disappointed, that somehow the time away from the stage—especially in Paul Westerberg’s case—might detract from the show. Plus, with no practice video from the reunion to go by (save for a few tantalizing snippets on their Facebook page), no pre-show interviews and no reason given why the band decided to reunite now, the whole affair was shrouded in mystery.

That element of surprise definitely worked to the Replacements’ advantage; in a sense, the band could start with a blank slate again after 22 years and not disappoint anybody—including themselves. The opening trio of songs—“Takin’ A Ride,” “I’m In Trouble” and “Favorite Thing”—embodied Riot Fest’s punk spirit in every sense of the word, erupting in a way that embarrassed most touring rock bands today. Westerberg, clad in a grandpa-like plaid sport coat, flailed around the stage like a greaser rockabilly punk; bassist Tommy Stinson, wearing a white sport coat, prowled to his left and slashed at his slung-low bass. Punk vet Josh Freese and Neighborhoods guitarist David Minehan (both one-time Westerberg tour mates) aided and abetted the pair with furious tempos and guitar work; the latter especially veered between raucous and grooving with ease.

The set veered between these hardcore-speed thrashes (“Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” “Love You ‘Til Friday,” a cover of Sham 69’s “Borstal Breakout”), the more ragged rock & roll of the band’s later years (“Little Mascara,” “Achin’ to Be,” “IOU”) and songs they couldn’t not play (“Alex Chilton,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Achin’ To Be”). The wistful porch-country of “Androgynous” and “Kiss Me On The Bus” felt invigorated, and the encore was a delightfully off-balance-jazz take on “Everything Is Coming Up Roses.”

Judging by photos of the setlist, even the segues and covers were rehearsed, but they didn’t feel stodgy or planned; there was a looseness to the show that made it feel special. And even when things weren’t perfect—such as during the otherwise-lovely loose-limbed jangle of “I Will Dare,” when Westerberg forgot the words to the second verse and laughed about the true nature of the “How old am I?” lyric—it was charming, not embarrassing.

As a fan, it was gratifying—and, I’ll admit, a little surprising—to see how animated Westerberg was onstage. I’ve only seen him once before (in 2005 or so, when Michael Bland was his drummer), and my takeaway then was a genteel songwriter who was a bit creaky. But with Stinson at his side last night, Paul was energized and disarming. In a rough-and-tumble Minnesota mumble, he joked about their time away (“We were having a wardrobe debate. It remains unresolved.”) and about trying to figure out stage banter, while the howl leading into “Bastards Of Young” was a cathartic T. Rex roar. He even grew sentimental in spots: Before a bittersweet “Swingin’ Party,” he said it was a “special request from Slim back home,” a nod to Slim Dunlap, who had a serious stroke in 2012.

But it was the beloved Tim tune “Left Of The Dial” that made the show explode. Back then a wry summary of the band’s lot in life (and the music industry), last night it felt defiant and triumphant, a big middle finger to naysayers, critics and anyone who underestimated the ‘Mats—then and now. That moment above all silenced any grumbling about how this lineup isn’t a “true” Replacements reunion. The spirit of the band—scrappy and kinda sloppy, but always with more talent than most acts out there—was alive and well. That mattered most last night—only this time, the Replacements lived up to their potential, and then some.

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