Paul Westerberg in LA

My buddy Mike M. called the other day offering me a ticket to see Paul Westerberg at the Henry Fonda Theater. I couldn’t resist!

The plan was to met up with the rest of the crew (John A, Eric, FloBob and Mike M.) at Bob’s Frolic Room, then walk across the street to the gig. This was my first visit to that wonderful establishment in approx. 8 years and it is good to see that some things never change! There were also a few other Mats fans hanging out, including a documentary film maker named Hansi who interviewed a few of us for a fan documentary she is creating as a “valentine” to the Mats.

My first exposure to The Replacements was back in 83/84, when they opened for X at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis. They sucked, and less than a few of the X faithful gathered got it – booing them mercilessly. As X took the stage, Exene lambasted the crowd for not realizing the brilliance of the ‘Mats. It took a few years, but I finally witnessed that brilliance at an infamously amazing Roxy show in ’85. Not having followed Paul Westerberg’s work too closely over the last decade, I was curious if the rumors that he had “mellowed” were true. Gladly, that was not the case Tuesday night.

“It looks like we are watching a rehearsal” – anonymous voice, 2/22

This is a strong band and there is a sense he is reveling in a renewal – a rebirth of the raw rock and roll spirit, and the apparent esprit de corps is also working in our favor, adding lively onstage interplay and ratcheting up the volume.

Opening with “Merry Go Round” and “Someone Take the Wheel”, the set list spanned the last 20 years, with brief detours into covers (Dylan’s “Only a Hobo”, “Star, Star” from the Stones, and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever”), before finally closing with the one-two punch of “Alex Chilton” and “Left of the Dial.” The minor flaw was there was no representation from Let It Be.

Paul’s vocals were raw with emotion, and clear. Sonically, the guitars rang loud and pure, if not always in tune. (And Kevin Bowe could’ve been louder.) The solid rhythm section of Jim Bouquist and Michael Bland prevented more than its share of derailments, propelling the group steadily down the tracks even as the songs swayed in the winds, threatening to tip over from time to time.

One false move and it all goes flying off the tracks. And there were several train wreck moments, which is to be expected when an artist is working on the edge, dangling way over the precipice with no fear for his own (artistic) safety.

When it works, it transcends entertainment.

When it doesn’t, it still can shimmer brightly. Like translating the first verses of “Kiss Me on the Bus” into blues – an inspired segue from “I’ve Got a Mind to Give up Living”. Had this band been together for more than 3 months, they likely would’ve pulled it off brilliantly. In fact, they almost did. Even with less than stellar execution, it proved the point that there is an underlying genius at work.

And then there are the little things, like responding to a request for “Treatment Bound” by incorporating the word “treatment” several times into “Love Untold”. Not many songwriter/performers would dare perform that kind of impromptu surgery (or self-mutilation) of their songs.

“Who is that – it looks like Lucinda Williams” – anonymous voice, 2/22

The encore duet with Lucinda Williams would probably classify as a train wreck.

“I wish he liked his music as much as we do” – anonymous voice, 2/22

A rocking event, and proof that no matter how old we get, rock and roll at it’s purest level still abides in our hearts – and can be set free simply with a well –played, almost in tune Gibson powered by a Marshall stack turned up all the way.


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