I won’t prolong it. The Replacements played their first gig in more than 22 years and it was inspiring, uplifting, life-affirming, all that shit.
But Riot Fest at Fort York, Toronto was a full-day event, and that means I had a good four hours to kill before I experienced pure nostalgic bliss. The second of the two days (the first being a bunch of metalcore bands I’ve never heard of, plus Every Time I Die and Grade) began with Single Mothers, the Flatliners, and Best Coast, all of which I missed, because I had better things to do. So it really began with Dinosaur Jr.
The first thing that struck me was the hair. The white locks of J Mascis is now at a Fright Night ghostliness, Lou Barlow’s has become exceedingly wider and bushier with volume, and um, who the hell was the guy with actual hair playing drums? Did Murph regrow his curly mane through the Hair Club for Men? Turns out that Kyle Spence from Harvey Milk was filling in while Murph is in rehab. Spence sounded even better, as Dino Jr. played a career-spanning ten-song set that began with You’re Living All Over Me’s “The Lung” and er… ended with You’re Living All Over Me’s “Sludgefeast.” I always find it amusing that they’ve come to play post-Lou tunes like “Out There,” “The Wagon,” and “I Feel the Pain.” Part of me thinks this is just J still playing mind games and passively tormenting Lou, but then again, Lou did get to scream during “Just Like Heaven” and he did sing the Deep Wound cover, plus he got to act the spokesperson, pointing out that “a Toronto riot” isn’t much of a riot.
I began to notice that Riot Fest really should have been called Celebrity Fest. Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene was milling about the highly-sought-after VIP area. Kenny Hotz of Kenny vs Spenny was there probably telling stale Nazi jokes. Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus was wandering on his own looking a bit lost (however, I do feel that his band should have replaced Best Coast for every possible reason you can imagine). Oh yeah, and in Toronto, I guess the bassist from Sum 41 still holds his celeb status. I gotta say, he looks sharp in a fedora.
As soon as Rocket From The Crypt took the stage in their fancy matching suits, I thought to myself, “This band is one of the most entertaining live acts I saw from the 1990s. Why hasn’t anyone made a big stink about them returning with a near original lineup?” Well, 23 years after first forming, and RFTC are still one of the most entertaining live acts on Earth. Speedo is a natural-born comedian, constantly suggesting shrimp cocktails and man-on-man contact to the point of forcing men to rub the shoulder and neck areas of those in front of them. While regularly spitting on his guitar for moisture (to "help his shredding," naturally), the band played a tight and brief set that put the holy trinity that is Scream Dracula Scream’s “Born in ’69,” “On A Rope,” and “Young Livers” smack dab in the middle. He also tried to get political, remembering that our country triumphed his in the “Red, White, and Blue Dawn” (or, as historians call it, the Battle of York) on that very field, though he was graciously accepting of America’s defeat.
Now, a couple days before Riot Fest, Stooges guitarist James Williamson fired shots at the Replacements over who deserved to be the festival headliner. In an interview, he told Exclaim! Magazine, “Good luck to the Replacements on following us.” Judging by their set, Williamson had a valid point. The Stooges brought that raw power to the stage with Iggy being his usually awesome blend of elastic and leathery. Has he even aged in the last 25 years? He was a human worm, twisting and contorting, picking his nose while shaking and, yes, baking in the sun. Even more entertaining to watch was Mike Watt slap his bass. Seriously, dude’s shit-eating grin made him look like a kid in a candy shop with a black card. They played the hits like “No Fun,” “Search and Destroy,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and “Fun House,” where Iggy invited the crowd to dance on stage. But where the fuck was “1969,” Iggs? Sure, “1970” is a worthy follow-up, but I wanted the previous year. It’s your best song. Everyone knows that. Before they closed with an “Oh, what the hell” new one, Iggy managed to fire more shots at the Replacements, colorfully adding, “That was the real end of the official concert.” Brap, brap!
Quick explanation for newcomers about why The Replacements matters so much: The Replacements were a band from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who rose up through the ranks with Twin City rivals Hüsker Dü in the early 1980s’ punk scene. They were drunken brats (Tommy Stinson was 11 when he formed the band) who caused a lotta shit and recorded carelessly, but led by the brilliant songwriting of Paul Westerberg, they managed to become instantaneous legends. They were their own worst enemies, self-sabotaging gigs for shits and giggles, but the ’Mats (nickname) managed to survive their awful reputation thanks to albums like 1984’s Let It Be. Anyway, eventually the band sold out by signing with Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, developed nasty habits, saw the lineup splinter and the music become borderline AOR, and eventually Westerberg continued under the name until he just went solo. Guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995 and drummer Chris Mars is now a painter, leaving Tommy Stinson and Westerberg as the only legit ’Mats. And if it wasn’t for the Replacements, we wouldn’t have the Strokes, Ryan Adams, Wilco, Guided By Voices, the Hold Steady, or Nirvana, plus a whole bunch of unknown bands that are probably even better, just too obscure to name.
As I mentioned earlier, the Replacements totally brought it, quickly silencing the doubters and naysayers and Stooges as they powered through “Takin’ a Ride” and “I’m In Trouble.” Playing the opening two tracks from the first album immediately demonstrated that the ’Mats weren’t going to squander this 22-years-in-the-making opportunity. They even apologized for the absence with a “Sorry it’s taken us so long,” blaming a long-standing wardrobe debate as the cause for their delay. They mixed things up in the set list, covering the important albums, peppering it with unlikely covers and a few nice surprises. And y’know what? Hearing the 50-something Westerberg belt out songs he wrote three decades ago sounded better than I expected. Sure he made some decent solo albums over the years, but he should’ve been doing this at least for the last year. Surely, Tommy hasn’t been playing in Guns N’ Roses for fun! Westerberg, a known instigator, popped his vocal glock back at Iggy, snidely commenting that “Jim Osterberg is my new best friend.” (In case you didn't know, Iggy’s real name is Jim Osterberg and was one of Westerberg’s musical heroes growing up.)
In true Replacements form, PW forgot lyrics to both Let It Be’s “Androgynous” and “I Will Dare,” even asking fans to stand in for him. But who wants to see a perfect band? Still, what he lacked in professionalism, the Replacements made up for in executing favorites like “Alex Chilton,” “Bastards of Young,” and “Left of the Dial” with probably more precision and less fuckery than ever.
For the encore, Westerberg came out donning a Montreal Canadiens jersey, goading the Maple Leafs-strong crowd. I’ve seen this move pulled by musicians before, and as a lifelong Leafs hater, I’ve gotta say that move never gets old. Ending with a bizarre cover of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and an inspired version of Pleased To Meet Me’s “I.O.U,” I got the sense from possible subliminal messaging that Westerberg and Stinson are pretty serious about this reunion and want to make up for lost time. But if I’m not, well, I got to see the Replacements, something I never thought would ever happen in this lifetime. And that makes me feel pretty damn special.