The notable classic rock radio station of Northern Colorado can be found right-of-the-dial at 107.9. It is affectionately and appropriately referred to as “The Bear.” I know these details because the first thing I do upon entering my mid-sized, anything-but-luxury rental sedan at Denver International Airport is search for the nearest classic rock radio station. There is a certain comfort in classic rock radio no matter where you are in America; you know exactly what songs they are going to play, and exactly what songs aren’t making the cut. In fact, even the voice of the introductory commercial that greets you before the music does is the same no matter where you go. Cynics may cite such a fact as everything that’s wrong with the public airwaves today, but I have no time for them at the moment. Because right now, I am alone. In Denver. Some 1,000 miles from home. And I need all the comfort I can get.
Oh, slowhand — adultery never sounded so soothing.
I found out about the Replacements (or, more accurately, what is left of the Replacements) three-off reunion shows the way people find out about things these days – via Facebook. Just before 11pm on a Wednesday evening in June, a friend of mine posted about the dates in typical hyperbolic fashion, meaning this bit of news was accompanied by lots of caps locked acronyms and eager-to-explode emoticons. I immediately searched the internet for confirmation, and found that the Replacements would indeed be playing three dates this summer on the Riot Fest tour. My excitement was rightfully mixed with confusion as I had no idea what Riot Fest was, and could all-but-guarantee that the Replacements themselves had no idea what Riot Fest was until the opportunity was presented to them.
Originally conceived in Chicago as a multi-day, multi-venue showcase for legendary as well as up-and-coming punk and hardcore acts, Riot Fest expanded as recently as last year into a traveling musical carnival reaching four cities (including Toronto). In 2012, bands such as NOFX and the Descendents shared the stage with the likes of Elvis Costello and Built to Spill in what I imagine was a harmonious and pseudo-independent spirit. It was/is a cool concept, and makes more sense than it would seem on its face; if you think about it, the kids that listened to Converge in high school and college probably also lauded Doolittle all the same.
And so 2013 would prove to demonstrate more merging of the sub-cultures with bands such as the Dismemberment Plan and Guided By Voices playing minutes before acts such as Brand New and AFI. And you know what? It worked.
As Linda Richman might have put it, the 2013 Denver installment of Riot Fest was neither in Denver nor did it encompass any sort of rioting. Instead, the festival took place on May Farms in Byers, Colorado — a good 45 miles from downtown Denver. Northern Colorado had recently been ravaged by devastating flooding, but driving along 70 east that Saturday afternoon, one would never have known it. All there was accompanying me on the drive was an endlessly blue, completely cloudless Colorado sky and miles of unadulterated land to either side. That John Denver was, indeed, full of shit, man.
The set-up at May Farms was certainly more carnival than concert — a handful rides, a cavalcade of concessions, and even amateur wrestling events painted the infinitely dusty landscape. People were more than happy to cater to this funhouse environment. Costumers traipsed around the grounds in sometimes gaudy but always interesting garb, and seemed to care more about receiving attention than rightfully paying it to the on-stage and in-the-ring performers. The three-stage arrangement was thankfully extremely easy to navigate with the platforms all facing north in a staggered formation; the Riot Stage (or main stage) being the farthest east stage, followed the Roots Stage (which I guess was the second stage), and then the Rock Stage (logic dictates this was the third stage). Upon arrival, I quickly sought out the confines of the Riot Stage to bask in the sonically sunny and often sweetly somber Best Coast. Cosentino & company seemed to play more to their surroundings than those surrounding them as they delivered their trademark brand of inoffensive, throw-back surf pop amidst an almost too perfect, 80 degree day. Notable selections such as “Boyfriend” and “The Only Place” played well with new cuts as they showed little deviation from their established sound, but so what? It was a pleasant toe in the water of what would be a close to 12-hour journey of peaks, valleys, and the occasional dust storm.
Providing a foil to the relaxed aura of Best Coast was North Carolina’s own, Superchunk, a band who’s history and output should allow them the courtesy of headlining festivals of their own, but whose overall recognizability leaves something to be desired (case in point: the teenagers behind me were more than happy to espouse their ignorance of Superchunk as storied legends of indie-rock instead opting to take them in because they had a fun name to yell in my ear over, and over, and over…) Lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan brought a shot of earnest energy to the Rock Stage as the band tore through such classics as “Skip Steps 1&3” but devoted the majority of their set-time to the their immensely enjoyable new record, I Hate Music. For a festival funded by the ticket sales of those clamoring for reunions (myself included), it was amazing to see a 25-year veteran band churn out new tunes with a “won’t slow down” mentality.
“The last time we played Denver was 1874,” said Travis Morrison. “I’d say we look pretty good for our age.” You sure do, Travis. The soft-spoken, baby faced lead singer and multi-instrumentalist of The Dismemberment Plan still resembles the kind of person you may card before selling cigarettes to, but armed with an arsenal of songs dating as far back as 20 years, and a palate of brand new ones from their hotly anticipated release, Uncanney Valley, D-Plan (people call them that! honest!) possessed the poise their years as songwriters would suggest even with that whole recently halted hiatus still looming. Despite technical difficulties no one seemed to notice other than the band themselves (a guitar AND a keyboard broke), the Plan (again! actual nickname!) boyishly charmed the crowd at the Riot Stage with a set list that was highlighted by immediately unforgettable new tunes such as “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” and “Invisible,” the latter of which provided the kind of triumphantly repetitive bass line usually reserved for Escalades idling at NYC streetlights.
Bob Pollard entered the Roots Stage at Riot Fest the only way Bob Pollard knows how: set list in one hand, and cracked beer in the other. The elder statesman of indie rock and forever front man of Guided By Voices kept the banter to a minimum, but let it all hang out in the form geriatric gymnastics that featured multiple high leg kicks and some light bouncing around (presumably for posterity). As proclaimed by Uncle Bob himself, the band puts out “a record every 3-4 months” but the majority of the set was comprised of their latest, English Little League and the still somewhat recent for normal bands, Let’s Go Eat The Factory. Guided By Voices suffered through what was arguably the dustiest and worst sounding output of the day; as if the swirling earth that surrounded them and the sunlight crept deep into the speakers of their cabinets and woefully muddied the crops. It was unfortunate, but also in the vein of their own home produced past, and it certainly did not dissuade any of their fans from enjoying favorites such as “Game of Pricks,” “Smothered in Hugs,” or “Echos Myron.”
By the time 9:25pm rolled around, I had two choices: 1) check out Iggy and the Stooges on the Roots stage; or 2) stake out a prime spot in the front of the Riot stage for the Replacements who went on at 10:30 pm. Being as I traveled over 1,600 miles for only one of those bands, the choice was easy. Though if you really wish to know what Iggy’s set was like, I imagine he wore tight fitting blue jeans, forwent a t shirt in favor of his bronze/freakishly toned physique, played “Search and Destroy,” and, if applicable, any new songs were ostensibly awful.
My time waiting for the Mats to take the stage allowed me the courtesy of watching new friendships form between fortysomething couples from Minnesota, and to reflect on just what led me here in the first place. Often amongst strangers the question as to, “how many times have you seen them?’ was asked and answered over and over at the fest. But 22 years ago, the Replacements played their last show in Chicago, and I was a geek-faced ten-year old who was just starting to favor Nirvana over NKOTB. My only exposure to the band was through their name, and the stories associated with their amazingly raucous behavior (specifically those relating to their life-time ban from Saturday Night Live). It wouldn’t be until college where I procured a second-hand cassette of “Pleased To Meet Me” that the Replacements would be forever cemented in my brain for what they always should have been: musical hopscotch artists whose songs were always buoyed not by a label that could be affixed to them, but by a genuine ear for earnest and genial songwriting.
As the Stooges limped to a close, the crowd at the Riot Stage grew in size and anticipation. Within minutes, the lights were down, and Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” greeted the swarm of applause and hollers. And then there they were. Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, the last two active and original members of the Replacements, dressed in flowing pink cowgirl skirts, snap button western-styled shirts, and neon not-quite-ten-gallon hats. Their other band mates, drummer Josh Freese and guitarist David Minehan, opted for more masculine cowboy gear, but all eyes were on the hilariously dressed original members. It was a wink and a finger to the stereotypical west, but seeing them on that stage, you couldn’t help but think it was also a tribute to departed member Bob Stinson’s eccentric fashion choices.
Hitting the ground running, they opened their set in the same fashion as they did Toronto and Chicago plowing through “Takin A Ride,” “I’m In Trouble,” and “Favorite Thing” with precision and immediacy that kept fingers to the stars and mouths moving along. Westerberg caught his breath and announced that they were going to do one that hadn’t done before this summer and then proceeded into a flawless version of “Shiftless When Idle” much to the pleasure of the crowd. A 22-year break must have done them well as the one thing no one could deny is that the Mats sounded good. Even to an outside observer unconvinced of the band’s merits and unfamiliar with the history of critical adoration, the band sounded as fresh as any polished newcomers half their age.
As sharp as their sound was the wit of Westerberg who spent time ribbing Tommy for his other job (“are you in the jungle, baby?”) and admittedly forgetting the words to his own creations (“Kiss Me On The Bus” and “Androgynous”). His honesty was brash, but his laughter was intoxicating, and hey, the man sure could wear the hell out of a pink, ankle-length skirt. Covers of Chuck Berry bled into Beatle interludes and added to the loose nature of the performance that had the crowd entranced in nostalgia and veritable joy. But perhaps the most memorable moment came when the Mats returned to the stage for their encore. After closing their regular set with the cross-generational anthem, “Bastards of Young, ” their re-arrival found a Westerberg perched behind the drum kit, cigarette in mouth, banging along like a spastic 6-year-old. “Well, there’s a hootenanny” crooned Westerberg as Stinson, Minehan, and Freese, provided accompaniment in the form of unfamiliar instruments. This glorious mess was followed by an equally unkempt version of Kiss’s “Detroit Rock City” with Westerberg refusing to give up his seat behind the kit. A half-hearted attempt at the Who’s “Substitute” with Tommy on vocals was abandoned almost as soon as it started with a smiling Tommy declaring to the crowd, “hey, you guys asked for this!”
We certainly did. And if it has to end, this is exactly how we wanted it.