It is not a criticism to say the Replacements’ third and (presumably) final reunion concert in a dusty farmer’s field an hour east of Denver was a shit show. Most lifetime fans will recognize that as a compliment. The Replacements were underground keepers of the flame for gritty, lo-fi rock that paved the way for the grunge explosion of the 1990s.
You expect things to get a little messy. You WANT things to get a little messy.
And that encore on Saturday was a proper shambles.
Headlining the first day of Riot Fest Denver, the Mats wore pink skirts and orange cowboy hats that seemed to be a color-blind homage to the Denver Broncos. That bassist Tommy Stinson claimed their Colorado-born, Rockmount snap-on Western shirts were actually made in India came off as more of a head-scratching comment than overtly rude. Not so when he blithely remarked, “At least you didn’t get rain,” a ghastly reference to the recent flooding that has devastated parts of the state.
With the Mats, the more awkward, the better.
But The Semi-Replacements: Paul Westerberg and Stinson, joined by ReplaceMats Josh Freese on drums and David Minehan on guitar, delivered an energetic late-night set that landed somewhere left of the historic dial. It was joyful and urgent, but just precise and scripted enough (down to some of the banter) to make you presume that must have been the anachronistic intent here.
It was certainly a curious set that seemed cheerfully unaware of its own significance.
The Replacements were playing the last of their only three shows in more than 20 years, following gigs in Toronto and Chicago. And WTF, we got it. Not Minneapolis. Not New York. Not L.A. Rather: A field-turned-rock-carnival right here in Nowhere Land Freaking Byers. Population: 1,160. Population Saturday: Guessing about 10,000.
All day, there was a sense of building, palpable joy for the utter randomness of it all. As if no one could believe the Replacements — the band that was responsible for some of the most raw and uncompromising and thoughtful rock of the Reagan-era decade — were actually going to step out on one of these three stages and play songs. Having bands like Guided by Voices and Iggy and the Stooges nearby helped set the mood, but there was a certain sameness to the rest of the day’s lineup. And as day wore on, the wait grew excruciating.
It turned out to be a miscalculation to not start the headliner till 10:30, when everyone not camping overnight would still face at least an hour ride back to civilization afterward. And because The ‘Mats saved most of what few hits they played for the end, scores of the under-40 newbies in the crowd departed long before the band did.
Those who stayed till the end were treated to hilarious bits of tomfoolery both musical and man-made. Westerberg’s incoherent homage to Colorado’s own String Cheese Incident, for one. Also: A Colorado-only nod to Tex Ritter (“Jingle Jangle Jingle”), and a mash-up of “Love You Till Friday” with Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.” Westerberg, at 53, still singing that signature, adolescent question: “Whatcha gonna do with your life?” (“Nothing!”)
Most fun was simply watching Stinson and Westerberg grinning at each other throughout like schoolgirls, which is sort of what they looked like in their skirts as Westerberg sang “Androgynous,” the only thing remotely approaching a ballad the band played all night. It’s too bad that if Westerberg had to botch the words to one song, it was this one — a heartfelt plea for gender tolerance that makes it one of many Mats tunes to retain both its visceral vulnerable and social relevance. Made more special by Westerberg singing “Here comes Dick; he’s wearing a skirt,” while wearing one himself. And leggings, too. If only he could have remembered how it went.
‘Round midnight, Westerberg finally started throwing fans some bigger bones: “Alex Chilton,” “I Don’t Know,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Bastards of Young.” Then came the most hilariously awkward encore ever. It began with Westerberg taking the drums for “Hootenanny.” Westerberg then mocked concert cliche by asking fans for requests he had no intention of playing. Because there were an unfortunate a number of major ‘Mats sits still yet unsung, the crowd went full-throated: “Skyway!” “Here Comes a Regular!” “I Will Dare!” “Waitress in the Sky!” “Unsatisfied!” “Fast and Hard!” “IOU!” they screamed. Stinson sort of started songs that he just as quickly aborted. The band looked utterly confused and walked off-stage, presumably to regroup for a proper encore.
And … they never came back.
It was a quintessentially self-destructive ‘Mats moment. And a perfect ending to any ‘Mats show, even if it left some of those who don’t know better scratching their heads in a farmer’s field at midnight. “Thank you for enduring this,” Stinson said.
To all of those 16-year-old boys who grew up with Gordon Gano, John Doe and Billy Bragg, the night made plain there is still a place for 53-year-old Paul Westerberg and what his generation of songwriters have to say. It also made plain that 16-year-old boys are growing up today in a musical landscape utterly void of profound songwriters like them.
No doubt many aging Mats fans left with their need for nostalgia sated. I felt it was just a hilarious way to spend a sloppy Saturday night. Even if it wasn’t a night for the ages … There’s no replacement for the Replacements.
1. Takin a Ride
2. I’m in Trouble
3. My Favorite Thing
4. Shiftless When Idle
5. Hangin Downtown
6. Jingle Jangle Jingle (Tex Ritter cover)
7. Color Me Impressed
8. Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out
9. On The Bus
10. Achin’ to Be
12. I Will Dare
13. Love You Till Friday/Maybelline
14. Merry Go Round
15. Wake Up
16. Borstal Breakout (Sham 69 cover)
17. Little Mascara
18. Left of the Dial
19. Alex Chilton
20. I Don’t Know
21. Hold My Life
22. Hello Goodbye (Beatles cover)
23. Can’t Hardly Wait
24. Bastards of Young
John Moore founded The Denver Post Underground Music Showcase in 2001 and served as deputy sports editor, rock writer and theater critic at The Denver Post. He now writes for www.CultureWest.org and is an in-house journalist for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Follow him on Follw him on Twitter.
Dylan Langille is a Fort Collins-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. See more of his photos here.
Seth A. McConnell is a staff photographer for the YourHub section of the Denver Post and is a regular contributor to Reverb.