Live Review: Paul Westerberg

by Mitch Goldman

Showbox Theatre, Seattle, WA 9/10/96

It's a good thing Paul Westerberg is touring to support his recently released second album Eventually rather than letting it speak for itself. While 1993's 14 Songs showed the ex-Replacement reaching a nice maturity while still hanging on to that smoky, ironic wit that made him America's most important post-punk songwriter in the mid-'80s, the new record sounds like a dozen weak Westerberg B-sides. None of the songs are bad, but neither are any of them great. Coming from the man who wrote "Left of the Dial," that's depressing.

But Paul still rips it up live, with his three piece backup band (the same band he toured with in 1993?) chugging along in the same off-the-cuff bar band feel that fueled the Replacements' live shows. Of course, this band and Westerberg himself are both more mature and focused than the Replacements ever were and instead of that anything-can-explode-at-any-moment feeling, you get a more coherent reading of Westerberg's material. Spanning back to the first Replacements album, yet giving short-shrift to his first solo CD (only 2 tunes were played from 14 Songs), the Showbox Theatre performance found Westerberg kicking the somewhat limp tunes from Eventually into high gear. "Once Around the Weekend" sounded great, as did "Century" and "These Are The Days." "Love Untold" retained too much of its original sappiness, as did an acoustic version of "MamaDaddyDid."

The Replacements tunes in the set were greeted with the warmest reception by the packed Showbox crowd (featuring a beer drinking, smile-wearing Peter Buck in the back reaches of the club). Set standards such as "Can't Hardly Wait," "Alex Chilton," and "I Will Dare" were juxtaposed against rarer Replacements material such as "Blind," "Talent Show," the breathtaking "Swingin' Party," and the surprise hardcore one-two punch set-closers "I'm in Trouble" and "Customer." Hearing a mid-30's Westerberg rip through these first LP anthems with joy and abandon transported me back to the thrill of punk's heyday.

Paul is also becoming a master at controlling a crowd with only an acoustic guitar; like post-punk contemporary Bob Mould, Westerberg can bring an audience to a beautifully hushed place on numbers like the bar-denizen portrait "Here Comes A Regular" and a lovely, moving rendition of 14 Songs's "Black-Eyed Susan." One of the highlights of the Seattle show was Paul's classic moment of acoustic beauty, "Skyway." In three minutes Westerberg puts you on the famed Minneapolis skyway, freezing cold, watching your best opportunities pass you by: "oh but one day/I saw you walking down that little one way/there wasn't a damn thing I could do or say/Up in the skyway." This innocent, gorgeous tune captures the essence of Westerberg's considerable songwriting persona: just a guy, reaching for a dream, watching it walk away.

In a strange space in his career, Westerberg is trying to convince his audience that he's as potent as ever, and maybe he is; but the old tunes bring the reactions his new songs can't. Maybe Eventually is just a solo sophomore slump; maybe Paul really is past his peak. Maybe it's just my loyalty to a guy whose best work still resonates with me after a decade-plus of listening. It's a testament to how much Westerberg actually matters that his misses are more significant than most artists' hits. Here's hoping his next shots hit a little truer to the mark.

SETLISTS (9:20-10:57):

Waiting for Somebody
World Class Fad
Once Around the Weekend
These Are the Days
Kiss Me On The Bus
I Will Dare
I Won't Stay Alone
Ain't Got Me
Achin' to Be
Black-Eyed Susan*
Here Comes A Regular**
Waitress in the Sky*
Angels Walk
Love Untold
Talent Show
Can't Hardly Wait
I'm In Trouble->


Swingin Party*
Little Mascara
Alex Chilton

*acoustic/full band

Copyright © 1996

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