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[whitespace] Paul Westerberg
Paul Westerberg doesn't play by the rules.

Bastards of Young and Old

Paul Westerberg makes time stand still

IT WAS ALMOST like a joke. The guy sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of me at the Virgin Megastore was reading Sylvia Plath. Perfect! Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Rimbaud--all that poetic stuff about suicide and self-doubt. It's all Paul Westerberg territory, and Paul Westerberg was about to play a show for us. We diehards had gotten there early, but it turned we didn't have to--he went on 20 minutes late.

Looking around the store, I was shocked to realize that people aged 24 or 25 haven't seen the Replacements perform live unless they were incredibly precocious. The band's last gig in the Bay Area, at the Warfield, took place on the night the Gulf War broke out. A lot has happened since then, including the death of the Replacements' lead guitarist, Bob Stinson, and the replacing of one war with another. For a while, during the interim, Westerberg became a recluse. But here he is on the road again--record stores, anyway--promoting his new double-CD, Stereo (Vagrant), which in my untrustworthy opinion is the best of his solo efforts by a factor of about 10.

Having taken a four-year break, he's come back in style. Not only is his music stronger, but at his free, solo acoustic show at Virgin he appeared confident, sober and viciously in form, a far cry from the fragile, inebriated young man who used to rampage around with the Replacements, protesting life's essential unfairness by not really giving a damn. I think he gives a damn now, but that doesn't mean he plays by the rules.

Last Wednesday, his charisma was in full force, beaming down on the audience like the light from a supernova. Paul looked snappy in a plaid suit with red paint stains on it and a green silk shirt, surrounded by three or four guitars and a guitar tech. He opened with "Best Thing That Never Happened" and flowed into "Lookin' Out Forever," both from Suicaine Gratifaction. He followed with a medley: "Eyes Like Sparks" into Dylan's "All I Really Want to Do" and then his own "Kickin' the Stall." He made a few jokes with some guys in the front row who had driven down from Portland and Seattle to follow the tour of record-store appearances. He forgot the words and the keys to a few numbers and even--in true Mats fashion--stopped some songs midperformance.

But then, quite suddenly, he became superb: "Lush and Green," then--glory!--the Replacements' "Sadly Beautiful" and "Swingin' Party," which he performed as freshly and as heartrendingly as if he'd just written it. Near the end, at the point where there's a guitar solo on the record, he stood to one side, looked over his shoulder and said, "Take it, Bob." I looked around and saw tears falling down the cheeks of more than one grown man. It was an incredibly special moment.

Outside, on Market Street, taxis were dashing by, Muni was lumbering along, shoppers were peering into the store as if it weren't a special day downtown, but inside, time stood still. The audience was enraptured. Also, they were, with one exception, utterly reverent. When Westerberg first took the stage, one guy near the front said, "It's so good to see you, Paul," and miraculously, the audience remained dignified and blessedly silent until 6pm, when a jerk finally forced Westerberg off the stage with an untoward remark--"You're so Sonny Bono."

The other day, Paul told me that he feels protective of an audience that loves him, but if a chowderhead shows up, he'll be out of there immediately--and that's exactly what happened. Thanks a lot, Mr. Chowderhead. Without your interference, we might have gotten to hear "Dirt to Mud," one of the great new songs from Stereo, or "Mr. Rabbit," the Burl Ives song he covers on the same album, or "We May Be the Ones."

I wish I could go on the road, like the boys from Seattle, and see the rest of this "tour" of in-stores, but at least what we did see was great. Among other things, his appearance acknowledged the past without dwelling there, and then moved forward, into the future, where we all should try to live.

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From the May 2-8, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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