Since making his recorded
debut with the Replacements in 1981, Paul Westerberg has had three distinct
singer and songwriter was at his best mixing punk fury and naked soul on
timeless Replacements albums such as "Let It Be" (1984) and "Tim" (1985).
Next, he tried to clean
up his act, win the affection of mainstream radio and elbow his way into the
heartland-rock pantheon somewhere in between Bruce Springsteen and John
Mellencamp, issuing three bland solo efforts from 1993 to 1999.
After that, the lovable
curmudgeon became a hermit in his Minneapolis basement, until he resurfaced
in 2002, back in the ranks of the independent labels where he started. The
three discs he has released since then, including last year's "Folker," are
by no means equal to the 'Mats classics. But at least they sounded as if he
had some fun making raw and ragged noises down in his root cellar.
Unfortunately, it was
the glossed-up mid-period Westerberg who came to the Riviera Theatre on
Friday night, the second gig of his first tour with a band since 1990.
As he gears up for the
May 17 release of "Besterberg," a misleadingly titled 20-track anthology
culled from those post-'Mats solo albums, the 45-year-old performer once
again seems overly eager to please the invisible Powers That Be in the music
world, walking a blurry line down the middle of the road between
unrestrained rock 'n' roll aggression and slick, mature and thoroughly
Westerberg is touring
with a group he wittily calls His Only Friends: bassist Jim Boquist (Son
Volt), guitarist Kevin Bowe (Okemah Prophets) and drummer Michael Bland
(Prince). Accomplished players all, they simulated punk excitement, blues
sincerity and country honesty. But they never rose above the level of a hack
The Replacements were,
of course, a bar band, but they were so electrifying and unpredictable that
you couldn't turn away to order another round. One minute, they'd skirt
sheer chaos -- frightening, amusing or disgusting you. The next, they'd
bring you to the brink of tears with a flawless rendition of the saddest and
most romantic song you'd ever heard.
Westerberg avoided such
extremes at the Riv, except in pathetic bursts of stupid playacting. For no
apparent reason, he attacked a television set with a guitar, destroying both
the TV and the Fender axe. He later reprised the bit by smashing an old
At least he could have
updated the Who routine to include an iPod, laptop and cell phone. And he
should have tipped the stagehand who dutifully swept up his mess.
Bringing to mind Paul
Westerberg imitating Ryan Adams imitating the Paul Westerberg of
yesteryear's drunken 'Mats sets, the artist also demanded a bottle of
whiskey, rolled around on the ground, slaughtered a number of cheesy covers
(Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer," the Stone Ponys' "Different Drum" and
Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" among them) and mangled or forgot the words
to some of his best-known, most-loved songs -- not that there were many of
The 36-tune set list
drew most heavily from Westerberg's solo albums. The more recent
basement-tape material lost its unpolished charm as it was slicked up by His
Only Friends, while the older major-label stuff echoed the 'Mats' best but
fell far short, lacking the killer hooks, unbridled energy and elusive soul.
These songs were schlock-work when they were released in the '90s, and they
haven't grown in stature since.
faithful fans adored and cheered Westerberg's every move. Maybe they never
saw him at the height of his powers, two decades ago. Or maybe they were so
eager to relive those days that they happily settled for this sad updated
shouldn't confine himself to living in the indie-rock past, like his former
peers the Pixies, who've been raking in the cash on their nostalgic reunion
tour. But this is an artist who wrote two dozen of the best rock songs of
the '80s. Delivering more than two hours of utter mediocrity from the 15
years that followed his heyday isn't a brave step forward -- it's a sad
reminder of a great talent that has either been squandered or lost to the
passage of time.