By Mark Guarino
For a guy who just recorded two albums by himself in his basement in suburban Minneapolis, Paul Westerberg brought the cellar surroundings with him when he played a sold-out solo show at the Vic Friday.
The ragtag couch, chair, floor lamp and coffee table collection wasn’t quite a picture you’d find in the Ikea catalog, but it did create an appropriate backdrop for this 42-year-old indie rock icon, just as unkempt at this stage of his career.
Just as Bob Dylan articulated the frustrations of the Woodstock generation in the ‘60s, Westerberg was the voice of the alienated and bored suburban youth during the Reagan Eighties. Dylan’s career may have been buoyed by events that resulted in major shifts in society, but by the time Westerberg came around, society had returned to a different form of conservatism, one that was corporate and cemented. As the leader of the band of self-defeating roughnecks called the Replacements, he mocked the new world order from the perspective of a scrappy streetcorner punk, earning the respect of his generation, but ending up ignored by the mainstream.
That didn’t go by unnoted, either. “I’m the best thing/that never happened,” he sang Friday.
The crowd differed, a sign showing just how strong Westerberg’s currency remains. With a new double album out, this is his first tour since the mid-‘90s and he is enjoying a hero’s welcome. As he zigzagged through his catalog from the past two decades, the crowd filled in the gaps, singing background parts, feeding him lyrics when he forgot them, or just taking over songs entirely. To encourage their help, Westerberg hurled tambourines and kazoos at them to keep them going.
His memory lapses actually tightened the tension of his songs, fighting his way through songs to find the words like he was singing them for the first time. It was a roundabout way of making a song sound entirely fresh.
But authenticity, not stage gloss, is what made Westerberg so endurable a figure. His Replacements shows are now legendary for their booze-induced spontaneity. But even newly sober, Westerberg has not lost his touch. His credentials for rock swagger were certified as he riffed his way through Rolling Stones covers (“No Expectations,” “Jumping Jack Flash”), which sounded like natural cousins next to his own past classics like “Merry Go Round” and “Alex Chilton.”
Near the end of the two-hour show, he gave the okay for fans to join him on the couch. About ten in the front row obliged and it created quite a stage picture, a mix of American Bandstand and teenage slumber party. He ended up squeezing into the couch to crack out the Replacements nugget, “Hootenanny.” Yes it was.