The Last: words on the Replacements at Denver RiotFest

The Replacements blew me away so much that it took me almost two weeks to finish writing this. I was going to write about my trip to Denver and the other bands that played RiotFest but it quickly became all about “the ‘Mats”.  Their fans are funny that way. Luckily, TItus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles’ recent 9000 word inside joke on the subject for Spin is making me feel downright sane by comparison.  So here’s part one of three of my late report, all about the main reason I hopped on a plane to stand in a field on a farm with my jaw wide open.

c/o Ribshots, Greg Jacobs Photography

Old folks don’t like going to big rock festivals?  You don’t say!  I’d rather people hear whine about how punk/indie/alternative isn’t punk/indie/alternative anymore than listen to them moan about the dust and the kids and having to stand so far away.  It is what it is.  Let the kids have their fun.  More importantly, give a HUGE amount of credit to RiotFest organizers for building bills in Toronto, Chicago and Denver this year that got thousands of elder rock and punk fans to lower their heads in defeat and travel hundreds of miles for lineups they just could NOT miss….even at our age.

There had been talks of some kind of ‘Mats reunion for years, the best idea being their threat to complete the tour that Buddy Holly and his posse never finished. When they decided to actually use the Replacements name earlier this year to release a couple of covers to benefit fallen guitarist/saint Slim Dunlap and promised that they “rocked like murder”, I allowed myself to get excited. Despite the worthy cause, the clean studio recordings just didn’t live up to the hype.  Their new songs for a 2006 Rhino best-of compilation rocked harder and even those weren’t any better than the songs Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson did for a damn cartoon that same year.  Ok, maybe I teared up a little at the end

Still, the thought of HOW they’d ever do it was hard to shake.  Who would be the replacement replacements and how could it be anyone to get REALLY excited about if it wasn’t original drummer Chris Mars and, I dunno, a miraculously recovered Slim or a rock and roll ghost?  Mars had recorded Slim Dunlap’s “Radio Hook” for the Songs For Slim fundraising and didn’t help with “the Replacements” even though his artwork graced their single’s cover.  This led to a frustrating photo of Paul & Chris signing copies of the record, peacefully sitting right next to each other. I found myself yelling at my computer screen, “WHO PUT A PEN IN HIS HAND INSTEAD OF DRUMSTYX?!”  Ah well.paul w n chrisriotfest posterAfter dozens of “never say never” press quotes and their recent recordings, it was not completely out of left field when the “????????????????????” on the already stellar RiotFest lineup in Chicago was replaced with those magic words and thankfully Fall Out Boy-less dates were announced for Denver and Toronto. My initial reaction was like so many purist Shruggs Buzzkills I’d seen and heard: “Well, it’s not REALLY them.”  They all meant too much to me to have it be about just any two of them. After awhile, I figured that no matter who they got to be in the band, it’d probably be great to just see them play those songs and there’s no way they’d be predictible.  I just loved them too much to not go.

In the weeks that followed, I did plenty of detective work and guessing to see who they’d get as sidemen. It was only after the winners had been disclosed that I thought of rallying behind 16-year old Waylon Rector, whose decidely un-Replacementsy band Kitten was already playing two of the three Riotfests. Raised by his father on the Mats, the School of Rock star would’ve been an amazing choice.  How Replacements of a move would it have been to draft some hotshot kid no one’s heard of?  Ah well.  We’ll always have this video of him singing for the first time onstage two years ago…..

In the end, it was a pair that had previously backed Paul that many had hoped for.  Dave Minehan (the Neighborhoods and one-time Ric Ocasek sideman) and Josh Freese (from everyone else) had already proved their worth via a 1993 video of an insane free show here in nearby Oceanside put on by local radio station 91X. I’ve never seen Westerberg and a crowd more into it.  It’d do but it wasn’t until the reunited band posted a brief video on Facebook of them tearing through a rehearsal of  “Favorite Thing” that it occurred to me that, holy hell, they really were going to rock like murder.  

As the King of No Spoilers, I vowed to not watch any videos or spy any setlists of their shows in Toronto and Chicago.  But I had them on the brain something fierce, even going so far as to light up the Matsignal and plan a Replacement Replacements reunion of a one-off I did with friends ten(!) years ago. I found myself going through embarassingly long spells of searching the net for the latest info, listening to their albums in order and passive-aggressively pestering their tight-lipped webmaster for information. The two of us had just spent months putting together a website for my own Grandpaboy-styled band, so it was a strange honor to have him working on the (temporarily) minimal web presence of one of my favorite bands of all-time right afterwards. He did his job well and I got no big secrets in advance….damnit.

In the end, I caved. During their Toronto set, I scoured the web for quotes, photos, videos and tweets to share on our Facebook page. As a result, Mats fans upped our following by 10% in just one day.  For their next set in Chicago, the city where they ended it “for good” back in 1991, it was no surprise that there were….surprises.  New songs, improvs, screw-ups and a stage timer got hurt.  A proud midwestern band, Illinois residents and Minneapolis travellers hailed it as the greatest thing ever, making it what should’ve been the best of the three shows.  My webmaster friend made the trip out and sent me a photo from behind the stage. He was going to go to Denver too but said there was no way it could’ve been better.  Thank god he was wrong.mats from behindI was too busy during the week leading up to the show to maintain teenage-levels of excitement. All of the stress of getting out the door had me questioning whether the trip would be worth it.  Even spotting fellow fans once I got there (old men in Twins uniforms) didn’t seem to reassure me, though I got a HUGE kick out of seeing people wearing so many Mats and Songs For Slim shirts that my friend had designed.  The olde man anti-festival mentality had set in.  It had been a LONG day.  For a few seconds there, I thought I just wanted to go home.

After tearing myself away from the shit-hot Stooges set just a few songs in to jockey for position, I found a crowd of like-minded folks already in front of the far stage where the Replacments would be playing.  I walked up from the back and stood behind the last clump of people about 100 feet back.  Another friend of mine who saw them in Chicago said I’d either need armour or end up “watching television”.  There were no monitors for us to watch and I could see fine, even with my bad eyes.  This would do.  I’d be alone but I was surrounded by people who were there for the same reason I was.

But then I got a text from my old roommate, Sam, a Colorado resident who was there with his teenage daughters.  They were just a few feet away, so I joined them and it suddenly dawned on me that Sam was the first person that tried to convert me into a Mats fan.  As a kid, a friend’s older brother had played me their punk stuff when it was new. I’d heard all of their singles thanks to a darn decent local altrock station. I owned their last album and had even seen them in San Francisco on their last tour but I’d never fallen for them full-on.  Sam had slipped some lesser known songs onto mixtapes for me and talked them up but it wasn’t until years later that an online trader insisted on sending me some live tapes. I was hooked immediately.

So, even if I was too tired to enjoy the Mats, I could share a cool moment with an old friend, right?  I was completely unprepared for what was about to bound onstage as Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” blared over the PA.  We all were. At first, I thought they were all dressed as identical rodeo clowns and found myself gasping, “Oh god, tell me they’re not wearing clown makeup” out loud. Paul and Tommy were wearing matching red and black cowboy shirts with pink and red skirts while the replacement replacements had similar black and white checkered shirts, making Dave look even MORE like John Fogerty. All four were wearing bright Bronco orange hats. These are men that were not afraid to be silly AND melt our faces off with songs they recorded as teens.  Only the ghost of Bob Stinson was smiling harder than we were.

Like the other two reunion shows, they fittingly tore into the first song on their debut album and blasted us all a step or two back. Even having already watched videos and knowing they’d open with it, I was reeling at how amazing they sounded.  Maybe it was because I’d taken out my earplugs but, that combined with this hilarious visual meant that we had hit the jackpot of the three shows. As Sam and I jumped and screamed “TURN THAT SHIT OFF!” in unison, I pictured his girls rolling their eyes. In the break after the first chorus, Paul and Tommy slammed into each other, back to back, for a quick pose. Less than a minute into the set and the entire trip was worth it.

Photo by Chris Shary

Photo by Chris Shary

They came out with their punk guns blazing for a festival that’s been heavy on that kind of rebel music for years. Their set was stuffed with more early two-minute burners than they’d done in years, 22 year hiatus or not.  Even their first off the script moment was an impromptu but tight “Shiftless When Idle” from their first LP.  “I think we need to play one we haven’t played,” Paul announced.  “In fact, one we don’t know….it’s in F#.”

A few songs later, he gave us the quote of the night: “What’s that? You’re in the jungle baby?” “Ohhh, I knew it was coming,” Guns n Roses longest enduring bassist replied. “Far be it from me to give you shit for being in Van Halen….bus driving,” Paul deadpanned as they neatly seguewayed into a song about kisses on buses.  As I’m typing this, I’m listening to their last Chicago show in 1991 and he says “See my Axl Rose impression?” You can’t make this stuff up…much.

They didn’t stray far from the sets they’d recently played, but, it didn’t matter.  Just as I’d hoped, they could’ve played anything and I would’ve ate it up. It was the perfect mix of early punk shit, randoms and anthems, plenty of detours and an obvious absence of their biggest chart hit (“I’ll Be You”).  The original members had their game faces on but smiles did appear on several occasions.  The subs grinned plenty. Witnessing it filled me up with energy I didn’t think I had left. My legs were not happy later. Too bad.

Photo by THE Matt Page

Photo by THE Matt Page

On and on they rocked until they’d played longer than they had at either RiotFest.  Closing with a glorious “Bastards of Young” and not returning would’ve been fine with any of us but they’d been doing short encores.  Sure enough, they came back on just to end with the kind of chaos that they were so notorious for.  Paul headed straight for the drums, which meant they were about to recreate the musical chairs of “Hootenanny” with Josh Freese trying to make due on Tommy’s bass as Stinson switched to guitar. Figuring the interlude wasn’t going to go beyond one song, Freese started to take off the bass but Paul stopped him. “What else do you know?  Hang on to that fuckin’ thing!  I got a chance to sit down. I ain’t leavin’ it.”  Tommy played the “Detroit Rock City” opening lick and they made a fun go of it for a verse and a chorus but then stopped to laughter and cheers.

In trying to come up with something to finish with that would “send them away happy”, Tommy started into a closer fitting for a somewhat reunited band called the Replacements: “Substitute” by the Who.  Paul had suggested they name the band the Substitutes shortly after he joined the band some 35 years ago.  It looked like he was gonna kick in along but instead did a hilarious half-second Keith Moon impression that sent drumsticks flying.  Tommy cackled away laughing, pointed at Paul and sang “You think we look pretty good together…”  As Westerberg went to get his Daltrey on, the mic unplugged, leaving him just twirling the cord.  After finding the mic and underhanding it into the crowd, he patted Josh on the ass and ambled offstage, leaving the others to awkwardly follow. Perfect anticlimax.

Photo by Sam O'Daniel,

Photo by Sam O’Daniel,

But they still had one tiny little joke for people expecting them to come back and finish properly.  The odd rows of lights thrusting up behind the drumkit that barely came on during their set, slowly started to brighten. They became so blinding that you couldn’t look right at them, until you squinted and noticed that they were formed to make a huge hand holding up a middle finger.  That gesture is so tired by now but the fact that they told someone to build it with part of their huge, overdue paycheck and it sat there for over an hour without anyone noticing was….beautiful.

Photo by Sam O'Daniel from's RiotFest report

Photo by Sam O’Daniel from’s RiotFest report

How could I ever have doubted?  Probably because it was the first time they’d ever been “into it” three times in a row. Will there be more shows? I heard a rumor or two. Hopefully I’ll be all healed up by then.
“And if I don’t see you for a long, long while….”
P.S.  Was curious enough to hear what it might’ve sounded like if they’d really done “Substitute” to track it down at the amazing Replacements Live Archive Project.  Found a drunk one and a more together one and uploaded them here…..

Also, see Get Well Soon, Slim Dunlap.


One thought on “The Last: words on the Replacements at Denver RiotFest

  1. Nicely written! I was there in Denver. My feet touched the ground somewhere in the middle of the show. Great to hear my guys NOT DRUNK! What a SHOW!!!!!!!!!!!!

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