Jennings, 'Mats tribute lead homecoming parade at First Ave

CONCERT REVIEW: Kickoff weekend to the club's year-end serving of local all-stars included a surprisingly focused revival of the Replacements' debut.

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"It's great to be home."

It would have sounded like a typical crowd-sweetener comment any other time of the year, but the line carried a little more weight Saturday at First Avenue when muttered by Mason Jennings, the first of many local music heavyweights to return to the club over the next month.

A downtown tradition on par with the Holidazzle parade -- but one where the Jägermeister doesn't have to be bootlegged -- Thanksgiving weekend always marks the local takeover/reclamation of Minneapolis' landmark rock club. Touring bands who dominate First Ave for most of the year start petering out.

Conversely, Minnesota's own roadhog musicians are back home and eager to play a place where everybody knows their name. And their children's or dogs' names, too.

A year-end regular at First Ave, Jennings is part of a seasonal lineup that also includes the Doomtree crew (doing a seven-night run Dec. 4-10), Curtiss A's John Lennon tribute (Dec. 8), Motion City Soundtrack and Low (together Dec. 17) and, well, Mason Jennings (returning Dec. 30).

Now the official kickoff to this holiday marathon, the Tribute to the Replacements returned for a third year Friday, a Minneapolis celebration of the most Minneapolis band.

True to the Replacements' always-unexpected form, Friday's five-hour marathon centered on the group's raw, scrappy and downright snotty 1981 debut album, "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash" -- but the music actually sounded more rehearsed and sincere than the previous years. Few could've expected songs like "I Bought a Headache" and "Shiftless When Idle" to be taken so seriously. Religiously, even.

Guitarists Ryan Smith (of the Melismatics) and Terry Eason -- who led the house band through the entire "Sorry Ma" album -- played the spitfire guitar parts better than Paul Westerberg and Bob Stinson ever did post-recording.

Highlights among the rotating vocalist stints included: the kick-off tear through "Takin' a Ride" by punk vet Dale T. Nelson; Pink Mink singers Arzu Gokcen and Christy Hunt's sassy spiking of "Rattlesnake" and "Don't Ask Why," respectively, and Japhies singer Reed Wilkerson's stage-diving delivery of "Otto."

Only two songs had a bratty flair: a glammed-out Curtiss A screamed his way through "Johnny's Gonna Die," while Jimmy "Dude Weather" Gaines delivered "I Hate Music" as an Elvis impersonator.

A dozen other acts also played 'Mats sets. Some were straight-up and well-rehearsed, especially High on Stress' nailed-it hammering of "Color Me Impressed" and "Left of the Dial." Some were more playful and clever, including Martin Devaney's montage of Slim Dunlap songs (the guitarist who replaced the late Bob Stinson) and BNLX's fuzzed-out approach to "Merry Go Round" and "You Lose."

The yin-yang approach was especially prevalent when stomp-rockers 4onthefloor sloppily, drunkenly raised "Hootenanny" and "Treatment Bound" on the main stage while, minutes later, Poverty Hash played the same songs next door at 7th Street Entry with a bluesy bend. Both approaches worked beautifully.

On Saturday, Jennings faced his own kind of balancing act, having a strong new record to promote but also eight previous albums adored by the sold-out, faithful crowd. Oldies like "Butterfly" and "Living in the Moment" went over like big radio hits, even though they were rarely played on the pre-Current 89.3 dial.

Still, many of the show's best moments came off the new, lovingly titled "Minnesota" album, starting with the piano-led openers "Bitter Heart" and "Raindrops on the Kitchen Floor." Jennings, 36, added to the glimmer of "Clutch" by explaining how he imagined what memories would surface on his deathbed ("The most important moments in my life were unplanned," he concluded). He then delivered "Hearts Stop Beating" as one of a half-dozen songs with opening band/tour partners the Pines -- a truly hearty pairing.

For most of the 105-minute set, Jennings performed with only one sideman, Jacob Hanson, of Halloween, Alaska. They alternated between instruments (including drums), a disjointed but charming style reminiscent of Neil Young's solo shows, even during the ultra-Dylanesque songs "Crown" and "Ain't No Friend of Mine." Jennings likened the freewheeling approach to the making of his recent, self-made, home-recorded albums. So it really was like he was playing at home.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 On Twitter: @ChrisRstrib See more photos and set recaps at startribune.com/music

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