‘Don’t ask why,” Paul Westerberg sang on the Replacements’ first record, and he apparently is thinking the same thing when it comes to his band’s first shows in 22 years.
At press time, Westerberg had yet to say a peep to the news media about their three-gig reunion stint with the Riot Fest, the first of which was last Sunday in Toronto (followed by Chicago on Sept. 15 and Denver on Sept. 21). The Minneapolis group’s only other remaining original member, bassist Tommy Stinson, also didn’t say much when interviewed by Rolling Stone just after the June announcement.
“The universe seems to be trying to put us together to do our thing,” Stinson said. “It was just the timing and the aligning of the planets.”
A week ago, the guys were kind enough to give their hometown newspaper the scoop on the new Replacements: drummer Josh Freese and guitarist David Minehan, both of whom toured with Westerberg in the early 1990s. Freese also played with Stinson in Guns N’ Roses and on two new Replacements tracks for a 2006 anthology.
That answered one big question. In lieu of the guys themselves talking, we thought we would try to answer some of the other unknowns.
The “aligned planets” that Stinson referred to are: His own schedule away from GNR and solo gigs; Westerberg’s willingness, after nine years away from touring; the cool appeal of the Riot Fest, and the sad circumstances that brought them together in the studio last fall. They recorded four songs that became the “Songs for Slim EP,” a benefit for their former guitarist, Slim Dunlap, who replaced Stinson’s late brother Bob in the band in 1987 and suffered a severe stroke last year.
“They initially got together to help their friend, then ended up having so much fun and everything felt so good, they just decided to go for it,” said former Replacements manager Peter Jesperson, who spearheaded the ongoing “Songs for Slim” series as vice president of New West Records.
There might be a now-or-never aspect to the timing, too, said Memphis music journalist Bob Mehr, who is writing an authorized biography of the band (“Trouble Boys,” due next year on Da Capo Press).
“If the Replacements story tells you anything, it’s that life is short and unpredictable,” said Mehr, referring to Dunlap’s stroke, the passing of Bob Stinson in 1995 and the death in 2008 of Steve Foley, who played drums on the band’s final tour in 1991. “I think time and reality finally set in: Tommy’s 46 and Paul’s 53. If they’re gonna reunite, they want to go out there while they can still really deliver.”
The only other original member left is drummer Chris Mars, who quit the band around the release of the 1990 album “All Shook Down” (their last) and quit the music business a few years later to focus on painting. (His artwork adorns all of the “Songs for Slim” releases, including singles with Jakob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Frank Black and many more).
Stinson told Rolling Stone, “We didn’t speak to Chris because we knew the answer before we even asked — he’d say ‘no.’” (Mars, who contributed a solo track to the “Slim” EP, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Some of the band’s close followers were surprised Westerberg and Stinson didn’t choose the Minneapolis musicians who helped them make the “Songs for Slim” recordings, drummer Peter Anderson and guitarist Kevin Bowe — but those guys apparently weren’t.
“Anyone who asks ‘why’ with Paul doesn’t get the guy at all,” said Bowe, who also toured with Westerberg in 2004 and is happy he’s performing again, period. “It would have been cool to do those shows, but I really look forward to working on some new stuff with him at some point. I don’t believe his best work is behind him.”
One of the band’s longest chroniclers, Minneapolis writer Jim Walsh, doesn’t buy criticism that two members are too few to call themselves the Replacements.
“To me, the brotherhood of the ‘Mats is a far-reaching one that encompasses the original, living and dead members, and everybody who’s ever felt like they were part of it,” said Walsh, who wrote a coffee-table book on the band coming in November (“The Replacements: Waxed-Up Hair and Painted Shoes”).
While the band has fielded reunion offers from big festivals for years, the Riot Fest “embody the spirit of the band,” said Darren Hill, Westerberg’s manager. “It’s an independent festival run by a kid who’s a true music fan and isn’t only in it for the money.”
That kid, Mike Petryshyn (age 34), said he got tears in his eyes when signed the deal. He said the band was on his “doesn’t-hurt-to-ask” list since starting the festival a decade ago in Chicago. “It’s just been way too long for them not to finally do this,” he said.
Petryshyn guessed that the guys also appreciated that Riot Fest is not a festival that “follows trends or worries about album cycles,” as evidenced by other timelessly cool acts on this year’s lineups such as Iggy & the Stooges, X, Blondie, Guided by Voices, Public Enemy, Mission of Burma and the Pixies.
It’s hard to fault a band whose influence was bigger than its sales for wanting to cash in, but there are two reasons the boys appear less than money-hungry. For one, they would have earned bigger paychecks playing Coachella and other, corporate-backed festivals. Also, part of the Riot Fest money will be donated to the “Songs for Slim” fund to help pay Dunlap’s medical bills.