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Concert Reviews: Paul Westerberg

Paul Westerberg
Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA
August 13, 2002
By: Darcy Sachs

Still A Replacement At Heart

The stage at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta looks more like the setting for an intimate gathering among friends, than the site for a rock concert. But the retro style couches, chairs, table and lamp are not there to host a social gathering, they are there for Paul Westerberg. Although touring in support of his latest release, a double CD called Stereo/Mono, songs from the albums can easily be lost among the dozens of tunes from a ten year career with the Replacements, and the solo years that follow, which make up the nearly two hour concert set.

Two decades ago, the Replacements gained notoriety for the unpredictability that plagued their live shows. Whether the band members would stumble on stage in a drunken stupor only to rush through a handful of songs, or whether the audience would witness a night of rock and roll at its best, was always a legitimate question. After a six-year absence from the road, their former frontman has people wondering what to expect when he takes the stage. Solo.

Expecting the performer at 8:00 pm, the roughly 1000 people packed in for the sold-out show still wait in anticipation thirty minutes later. While some sit, die-hard fans of all ages crowd the floor trying to remain patient despite their excitement. If not for the abundance of water bottles awaiting him onstage, some may suspect Westerberg, now in his early 40s, regressed to his Replacements-era habit of drinking backstage in preparation for the night ahead.

Despite trading in beer bottles for Aquafina, the aging rocker immediately proves that he still holds a place for the rebel he once was. He sprints onstage with a smoking cigar hanging from his mouth. Anyone who frequents the Variety Playhouse knows of the venue's strict no smoking policy, but who is going to tell Paul Westerberg to put out a cigar?

Wearing an orange plaid outfit complimented by a purple tie, Westerberg takes a guitar. His signature melodic garage rock soon envelops the room as he opens the show with High Time, the first cut from Mono. The audience sings along as Westerberg looks out grinning, obviously pleased with the crowd's reaction. Fans take advantage of the performer's choice not to use a setlist to guide him through the evening. Throughout the show they respond to songs with cheers and requests, which Westerberg willingly fulfills. At times, satisfying fans means sacrificing lyrics. During an amusing rendition of the sarcastic track Waitress in the Sky, the artist fiddles around on his guitar and stumbles through forgotten lyrics as audience members take over singing duties. He clearly enjoys the moment, proving that it's all just fun and games.

About midway through the thirty-two song set, Westerberg begins a cover of the Rolling Stones' hit Jumpin' Jack Flash, only to be interrupted by an attendee yelling insults about Stones guitarist Keith Richards. As if stepping back twenty years, the ex-Replacement pushes over his mic stand, throws down his guitar and storms to the edge of the stage to confront the offender. Security guards restrain the seemingly annoyed performer from jumping into the audience to settle this dispute. Perhaps it is the sea of confused faces staring at him that causes Westerberg to reassure the silenced onlookers by commenting with a smirk, "Time for daddy to sit down now, kids," as he takes a seat on the couch.

Interaction between singer and crowd occurs throughout the show. During a slower version of Wonderful Lie, he hurls handfuls of kazoos into the audience after commenting how much fuller the song would sound with backup from a kazoo section. He continues his song as the audience eagerly awaits their cue to join in . . . it never comes.

Going back to his early years, Westerberg obligingly delivers Replacements classics such as Alex Chilton and Valentine. The raw guitar sounds infect the audience, enticing them to dance as they sing along. During slower acoustic songs like Swingin' Party and Here Comes a Regular, the mesmerized fans never take their eyes off the singer as they mouth every word along with him. Those worried about Replacements songs losing something without the entire band backing up Westerberg have nothing to fear. The songs lend themselves surprisingly well to a single guitar.

As a way to meld the stage with the floor, Westerberg invites anyone who wants to, to join him on the couch. The front row enthusiastically climbs onstage to plop themselves on the furniture, as a herd from the back of the room rushes down making their way to the stage. Eventually security guards push people back to avoid losing sight of the musician. The atmosphere onstage resembles that of a sing-along as fans join in on I Will Dare. Westerberg's raspy voice leads them into a chorus so catchy, it is a challenge not to sing along.

Several times the surrounded star announces he's finished, but each time his admirers onstage convince him to do "just one more song." But all shows must end, and security escorts everyone offstage as the performer exits. The crowd remains cheering, luring Paul Westerberg for an encore. The opening line of Nevermind brings an uproar of cheers from every corner of the room. The singer's voice is a distinctive combination of gruff and melodic as he gives a heartfelt performance of the song, which appears to have as much meaning to him now as when he originally recorded it in 1987. As a classic rock and roll ending to a classic garage rock song, Westerberg abruptly smashes his guitar and storms offstage, confirming he still has some Replacement left in him.