Imagining the Replacements performing sober is sort of like envisioning Mick Jagger playing without Keith Richards, Bo Diddley without his square guitar, James Brown without a cape. Fans sometimes can't accept their favorites out of the familiar context.
Worry not about the newly sober Replacements, the Twin Cities' most acclaimed rock band. If they used to be a great attitude band while drunk, they have now become a great rock 'n' roll band. Their performance Wednesday night at the Historic Orpheum Theatre was a treat.
In the first half of their 1 1/2-hour concert, the 'Mats asserted themselves as a fine vehicle for leader Paul Westerberg's pop songs. He is a superior songwriter, who has evolved effectively from painfully raw songs about adolescent alienation to unvarnished expressions of adult worries. He seemed despondent, especially on new numbers like "Bent Out of Shape." The band favored kind of a carefree pop-rock sound of the 1960s, reminiscent of the early Faces and the Who in its "Happy Jack" period. However, these pop-oriented Replacements lacked an edge and the sense of daring that made them one of the most exciting rock bands of the 1980s.
"Talent Show" turned the performance around. The first verse and chorus were quiet, almost like one of Westerberg's acoustic ballads, and then the band busted loose, eventually turning the tune into a Chuck Berry-styled raveup. On the ensuing "Can't Hardly Wait," Westerberg and his mates played with unbridled passion. It was like the old 'Mats reinventing themselves. They even took on obscure flip-sides of their early singles, a raunchy T. Rex-flavored "Raw Ramp" and "If Only You Were Lonely," a marvelous country plaint that George Jones should record.
The rest of the concert was full-throttle rock 'n' roll excitement: The sing-along "I'll Be You," the closest the Replacements came to a hit single back in '89, was one of those transcendent rock 'n' roll moments where the band and the audience connected as one; the ensuing "Nobody," "Never Mind," "I.O.U." and especially "Alex Chilton" sounded like anthems for the alienated who had suddenly bonded with all these other lost souls in the Orpheum.
Westerberg slowed it down for a moment for "Here Comes a Regular" and then let out a guttural yell to ignite "Bastards of Young," a rousing declaration of the frustration of having no identity. It was a fitting finale.
The Replacements crammed more than 25 songs into their performance. Most of the material was drawn from the four critically acclaimed albums the 'Mats have made for Sire Records, beginning in 1985. They also threw in a few faves and raves from their early days on Twin/Tone Records, which began in '81.
Last night's concert was the first local one for drummer Steve Foley, who joined the 'Mats in December and has only three weeks' worth of concert experience with them. He was rock solid, a drummer who can drive this quartet. Guitarist Bob (Slim) Dunlap, who signed on in 1987, stayed in the shadows last night, though his colorings and shadings were integral to both the quieter material and the rousing rockers.
The Goo Goo Dolls, a trio from Buffalo, N.Y., opened with noisy power-pop that clearly owes a debt to the early Replacements and Husker Du, though the group ultimately sounded like a post-punk version of Cheap Trick.