Westerberg falls short of past glory


April 18, 2005


Since making his recorded debut with the Replacements in 1981, Paul Westerberg has had three distinct careers.

The 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 boring professionalism.

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 bar band.

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 telephone.

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 these.

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.

Inexplicably, the 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 simulation.

Westerberg certainly 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.