CHICAGO – Things are getting a little messy in ’Matsville. Which is probably to be expected by now.
On Wednesday night at the Riviera Theater on Chicago’s north side, the Replacements turned in a 90-minute performance that seemed to match the venue: lots of cracks in the facade, a discernible need for updating but still a utilitarian aesthetic and classic charm.
The Minneapolis rock legends are halfway into their first real tour since reforming with a new lineup a year and a half ago. Dubiously dubbed the Back by Unpopular Demand Tour, it finds them playing mostly in old theaters and ballrooms instead of the sporadic festival and outdoors gigs of 2013-14.
A surprise to no one who remembers how frontman Paul Westerberg rarely left his Edina basement for eight years, the guys aren’t including a hometown gig on the trek. Thus, a caravan of Minnesotans either headed to Chicago for the two-night Riviera stand Wednesday and Thursday or are headed to Milwaukee for a Saturday gig at the Eagles Ballroom.
Chances are pretty good that hometown fans won’t see a better show than the one the band gave them last September at Midway Stadium in St. Paul. That performance was unusually tight and regimented yet unmistakably spirited and fun (so fun!), the culmination of a dozen previous gigs where the new Replacements finally made a case for the lovably erratic band as a full-bore, kick-ass/take-names rock ’n’ roll unit.
You couldn’t knock Westerberg and co-founding bassist Tommy Stinson for thinking after Midway, “Let’s leave it at that,” at least in the city that means the most to the band. Maybe they’re not that interested in trying to ascend to those heights anywhere else, either.
Chicago is also a big part of Replacements lore, particularly as the site of the band’s last gig before its 1991 split. In no way did Westerberg and Stinson seem ready Wednesday to wind things down again, but they also didn’t mean business the way they did last fall.
They goofed around more. Not just wise-cracking banter between songs, but lots of silliness in the songs, with replacement Replacements Josh Freese (drums) and David Minehan (guitar) seemingly sucked into their voodoo vortex.
A few bars of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” were plopped into the second song, “Kissing in Action.” Near show’s end, the raging outro of “Bastards of Young” instead turned into Barbie Gaye’s late-’50s bubble-gum hit “My Boy Lollipop.” Throughout, lyrics were sometimes mangled for fun or dropped for effect, in addition to the occasional forgotten line that is standard Westerberg practice (or lack thereof).
The goofiest moment was their new jam “Whole Food Blues” — “song” really oversells it — which found Westerberg soloing on his guitar like one of the last of the original Chicago bluesmen.
“It took balls to do that here” in Chicago, he cracked afterward.
They also experimented more with the set list and song arrangements. The second half of “I Will Dare” was jacked up to at about twice the normal speed, and they added a rollicking country flavor to “Treatment Bound.”
The latter was also one of a handful of songs not offered in their prior run of shows. The new additions really did help keep things interesting — and from becoming a by-the-numbers oldies fest (although, unlike the outdoor gigs, Wednesday’s audience definitely couldn’t be called young).
Other new additions included “Sixteen Blue,” a tender high point for Westerberg vocally, and “The Ledge,” a crowning moment for the whole band as it locked in on the song’s powerful climax.
Conversely, the late-era snoozers “Nobody” and “Anywhere Is Better Than Here” made for poor substitutes for “Takin’ a Ride,” “Favorite Thing” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” — the snarling early-’Mats standards that fueled the festival gigs. “Rattlesnake” did make the cut, but only about 15 seconds were played.
The concert itself was also inexplicably cut short. After opening the encore with his young-drunk-and-in-love acoustic anthem “If Only You Were Lonely,” Westerberg made some kind of huffy comment to an audience member and abruptly walked off. He did return, but only for one final song, “Alex Chilton,” with a couple others that were nixed off the printed set list.
That’s where the old Replacements probably would’ve started trashing the place, spraying beer on fans’ heads and/or launching into unrehearsed Foghat and Bachman-Turner Overdrive covers. Things got nowhere near that ugly Wednesday, but they also only rarely rose above a level that was better than pretty good.
Here's the Riviera set list from Wednesday:
I'm in Trouble / Kissin' in Action / Little Mascara / Color Me Impressed / Treatment Bound / Take Me Down to the Hospital / Waitress in the Sky / Valentine / Achin' to Be / Kiss Me on the Bus / Rattlesnake (snippet) / Nobody / Whole Foods Blues / I Will Dare / Sixteen Blue / The Ledge / I'll Be You / Can't Hardly Wait / Bastards of Young / 20th Century Boy with Bang a Gong (Get It On) (David Minehan mostly on lead vocals) / Anywhere Is Better Than Here / Left of the Dial ENCORE 1: If Only You Were Lonely ENCORE 2: Alex Chilton