TORONTO – True to its unpredictable lore, Minnesota's most revered rock act after Prince and Bob Dylan traveled a thousand miles and into another country to finally play a reunion gig.
"Sorry it took so long," singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg said upon taking the stage for the Replacements' set during Sunday's RiotFest at Toronto's Fort York grounds. "For 25 years, we've been having a wardrobe debate."
Many hometown fans — who've actually waited 22 years for another showing by Minneapolis' famously unfamous but highly influential quartet — couldn't wait three weeks for the band's second of three reunion sets, set for Sept. 15 in Chicago. That's as close to home as they'll get, for now.
"I still hope they do a Minneapolis show, but the real fans knew to get here and see them while they can," said Mark Kartarik, 24, of St. Paul, who drove nonstop with two friends to see "the 'Mats" (as the old-schoolers call them).
A heart-over-flash band that influenced Nirvana, Green Day and virtually the entire 1990s alt-rock explosion — Rolling Stone ranked the group's 1984 album "Let It Be" the 15th-greatest record of the '80s — the Replacements' commercial success never matched the critical accolades.
Sunday's crowd proved the legacy has endured. Only 2 years old when the band split up, Kartarik was part of a surprisingly large number of excited first-timers under the age of 30, who swarmed the merchandise tent to buy Replacements T-shirts and special-edition posters.
The posters sold out in an hour. As a reminder that the 'Mats have entered a new era, one of the T's read, "Hate us on Facebook."
Turned down bigger festivals
As if keeping with tradition, Westerberg and original bassist Tommy Stinson had turned down lucrative offers for many years from more prominent festivals such as Coachella. Westerberg's manager, Darren Hill, said they went with the RiotFests because "it's an independent festival run by a kid who's a true music fan."
In Toronto, the sold-out festival — which also featured Iggy & the Stooges, Dinosaur Jr., Best Coast and more — drew nearly 10,000 people (20,000 are expected at Chicago's RiotFest). It sounded like at least half of them were singing along to favorites such as the pre-encore finale, "Bastards of Young," "Kiss Me on the Bus" and "Favorite Thing."
"If you liked that one, we've got a whole lot more that sound exactly like it," Westerberg cracked after "Favorite Thing."
As if to show they still had it in them, the band spiked the first half-hour of the 75-minute set with snarly, punky, rapid-fire, way-oldie songs such as the opener "Takin' a Ride" and "I'm in Trouble."
In each, spiky-haired bassist Tommy Stinson — who, at 46, now tours with Guns N' Roses — displayed the enthusiasm he had at age 13. A similar, infectious smile was displayed all night by drummer Josh Freese, a GNR alum himself, filling in for uninterested original drummer Chris Mars (Boston-area guitarist David Minehan rounded out the reunion lineup).
The show was far from perfect. Westerberg forgot lyrics during "Androgynous" and one of their biggest hits, "I Will Dare." To start the encore, they rambled through a cover of the Broadway standard "Everything's Coming Up Roses" — "a song we don't really know," Westerberg admitted.
"Roses" was one of four tracks the Replacements recorded last fall for the "Songs for Slim" EP, benefiting former guitarist Slim Dunlap's medical expenses following a severe stroke — sad circumstances that sparked the joyous reunion. "This one was a request from Slim," Westerberg said before the dark, tender classic "Swingin' Party" (a not-so-joyous moment).
Kevin Florenzano, 24, of Eden Prairie, was elated to see the Toronto date came first, since his old schoolmate Mick Brambilla, of Brainerd, recently moved there.
"The 'Mats are back!" Florenzano declared at the end of the band's 75-minute set. Added Brambilla, "The music for me became real, no longer a myth."
Where the story goes from here remains to be seen — which only seemed to add to the elation of fans there for the moment.
"It would be very Replacements-like of them to only play these few shows and call it quits again," said Dustin Smith, 34, who flew from Los Angeles so he wouldn't miss a chance to see one of his favorite bands.
Sonia Grover, talent booker of Minneapolis' First Avenue nightclub — who perhaps wants the band to perform at home more than anyone else — wants them even more now.
"I've only seen them once before," Grover said afterward, "but can't imagine they ever sounded better than they did tonight."
See the set list at startribune.com/artcetera.