I felt obliged to be good and drunk by the time the Replacements took the stage, for the first time in 22 years under that name, on Sunday night at Riot Fest in Toronto. I doubted the band would be at all inebriated; in the 1980s, when I never got to see them, they were known for being gloriously, obnoxiously, piss-in-a-shoe drunk in their thrilling and/or appalling shows—the kind of drunk that you can only come back from, two-plus decades later, either all sober or more than half-dead. (Guitarist Bob Stinson didn’t make it far into the 1990s.) If bassist Tommy Stinson and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg were going to come out without drummer Chris Mars (original drummers are a rarity on the reunion circuit) and put on a tight, professional set with a couple of hired guns (guitarist David Minehan and drummer Josh Freese), I supposed it was up to us in the crowd to supply the bleariness, even at the cost of $7 per can of PBR.
I never considered missing this show, a fact that embarrassed me a bit, as I’m usually happy to miss almost anything that involves an outdoor festival. Every reunion like this raises the same questions: Is it faithful to the spirit of the original? Is it an authentic expression of who these artists are now? Does it risk idealizing, getting stuck in, or commodifying the past? You could say the Minneapolis crew was the kind of band that was never meant to re-form. But if the far-more-punk likes of Sex Pistols and Black Flag have done it, why would it be beneath the ‘Mats, who loved classic rock and took on the post-punk mantle (as they took on everything) only grudgingly? Sure, these moves are generally about money. But would Paul Westerberg on his own ever get to play to 15,000 people with Dinosaur Jr., Rocket from the Crypt, the Weakerthans and Iggy and the Stooges as his warm-up acts? I find that hard to begrudge.
Given the bill, the crowd leaned to the 35-and-up demographic, but I knew lots of younger folk, women especially, who’d been waiting all summer for it. After all, the Replacements aren’t exactly a hard-to-acquire taste—all their screwing around aside, the noise and shenanigans couldn’t be peppered over much more melodic, to-the-gut tunes and heartfelt refrains. The story of pop-punk and even pop-rock since 1990 is pretty much a question of how many parts Replacements to how many units of metal (or water).
Then again, I have felt the icky cloy of nostalgia when I’ve revisited bands, such as the Pixies, that I saw in their primes. I’ve wondered if, even for the younger audience members, the zombie, museum-piece version of a band is worth seeing. What makes any band great is the way it alters the pressure and temperature of its own era; outside of that time, what can happen that’s of meaning? Without the late Bob Stinson (fired long before the band busted up, but to many people its heart), without Chris Mars, without the booze, without the aggressively un-crowd-pleasing covers, would this be a Replacements show in anything but name? There was no way it was going to make me feel any of the uneasy, hopped-up charge I got when I first saw the band’s famous anti-video videos on TV in high school, or first slammed the cassette of Tim, still one of my favorite albums, into some crappy player at a party, or read a zine review of a show somewhere far away. (What? They played all country covers at a hard-core venue?)
But here’s the thing: First-hand experiences of second-tier events are better than second-hand memories of first-rate ones. Especially after the fifth or sixth beer. Westerberg hit the stage, he and Stinson in clashing suit jackets, and said, “We’re gonna play some old shit, if that’s all right,” as if there were any new shit. As expected, Minehan and Freese played Replacements songs with more competence than they’d likely ever been played before. But there were some out-of-left-field covers (a bit of Jimi Hendrix, some Chuck Berry, Sham 69 and, in the encore, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” of all things). And first and foremost, I was somewhere I had never been before—in a field screaming along to “I’m in Trouble,” to “I Will Dare,” to “Androgynous” (I couldn’t remember the words, but neither could Westerberg), to holy-shit “Alex Chilton” and “Swingin’ Party” and above all to “Bastards of Young,” which I did—and on some unreconstructed level still do—believe to be the bona-fide anthem of my generation, such as it is. (Of course it had to be an anti-boomer-generation anthem, too.)
Never mind whether the river is the same river you stepped in back when. Sometimes you go back to a river because it’s a goddamn great river with a great view and you love the rafts they rent and the route over the rapids. Life is long enough to afford a few backtracks. So if a band you loved and never got to hear live reunites and comes to your town (Riot Fests are coming to Denver and Chicago in September), don’t miss it, because I’d lay odds that you’re still unsatisfied.