Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Clean Westerberg plays with old passion

By Larry Nager lnager@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was a sober Paul Westerberg who played the 20th Century Monday night, a concept unimaginable 18 years ago, when he and his famously un-sober band, the Replacements, was headlining Newport's Jockey Club. Monday, he limited his inhaling to a cigar he puffed on his way to the stage and his drinking to water and little bottles of Coke, but he proved you can be clean and play dirty.

        In front of a sellout crowd of 450, he energetically beat on half a dozen electric and acoustic guitars for 105 minutes, including 25 minutes of encores. A solo rock show is not easy to pull off, but with a loyal audience that provided lyrics whenever he had a momentary lapse, Mr. Westerberg was a real one-man-band, rocking with all the old passion.

        Wearing his trademark suit and playing on a stage decorated like a 1963 living room, he faced his fans and played the hits — or what should have been hits.

        His new songs from Stereo/Mono — “Only Lie Worth Telling,” “Mr. Rabbit,” “Let The Bad Times Roll,” “Eyes Like Sparks” — stood up to his '80s and early '90s output — “Waitin' For Somebody” from his score for the movie Singles; “Knockin' on Mine,” from his 14 Songs solo debut; the Stones' “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” a cover the Replacements recorded for a 1984 indie cassette; “Swingin' Party” from the LP, Tim; and several songs from the Replacements major label debut, Pleased to Meet Me, “Skyway,” “Valentine” and Mr. Westerberg's tribute to the leader of Memphis cult band Big Star, “Alex Chilton.”

        On the last, he poked fun at Guns N' Roses leader Axl Rose, who now employs the Replacements' old bassist Tommy Stinson (and reportedly refused to let him do a reunion tour). Instead of “I never go far without a little Big Star,” he sang, “a little GNR.”

        The show was moved from Bogart's (Mr. Westerberg hasn't toured in six years and his cult has shrunk), but the crowd made up in devotion what they lacked in size. They laughed affectionately whenever he'd flub a line or miss a chord — as he himself did). In that, he was the opposite of a typical rock star, taking the music, but never himself, seriously.

        Combined with a huge body of well-crafted songs that masterfully mix comedy and tragedy, it made for an intimate, unpretentious rock show. It's a lesson the newest wave of garage-rockers and pop-punks should learn.


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