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‘This is the bad dream I have every night

Westerberg goes unplugged, comes unglued
by Mark Anderson

t was really no shock when Paul Westerberg forgot half his songs at an April 23 in-store performance in Portland.

"Don't laugh," Westerberg told the multi-generational and supportive crowd of several hundred after an early false start. "This is my life. This is the bad dream I have every night."

Then, after taking a moment to collect himself, he grinned and added: "All you doctors and lawyers can go to hell." That got a laugh, but clearly the nervous kind. The show continued downhill.

Mainstream skirt: Stereo/Mono adds to the Westerberg oeuvre.

Westerberg has always seemed to go out of his way to shoot success in the foot. His latest show-business foray – a double-disc on an obscure label and a two-week tour of CD shops – seems a perfect recipe for skirting the mainstream.

Westerberg and the Replacements, his scruffy 1980s band, worked overtime to earn a reputation for straddling a line between pop art and drunken mess. When early MTV could have turned the band into million sellers, they mocked videos. They got fall-down drunk and used the F-word on "Saturday Night Live." Every show was a wild ride.

That the band from Minneapolis never had a hit is considered part and parcel to their mystique and charm: the reluctant boys-next-door who coulda, shoulda, woulda – but never quite made it. Westerberg's solo career has included more of same.

Still, for more than half his 42 years, Westerberg has combined an uncanny knack for turn of phrase with a rare gift for finding the best possible moment to switch to the major chord.

“It used to be exciting when I wasn’t sure what would come next, but this is just embarrasing.”

The result is a prolific catalog that displays equal measure of wit, melody and uplift along with an everyman's touch for heart-rending stories. An argument for Westerberg as the missing link between Nirvana and the Rolling Stones is often and easily made.

But at the Music Millennium gig on Portland's tony NW 23rd, it didn't matter. Old songs, new songs, cover songs, requests; different guitars, anxiety, humility or simply plunging onward – the misplaced words and forgotten chords kept on coming.

Westerberg forged ahead: "Achin' To Be," "I Will Dare," "Skyway" – it just didn't matter. At least as often as not, he stopped and restarted or simply moved on.

"It used to be exciting when I wasn't sure what would come next," Westerberg confided near the end of his train-wreck performance, "but this is just embarrassing."

Despite spending the evening behind sunglasses, he clearly seemed lucid. His banter was quick and his embarrassment profound as he became a virtual character in one of his own sympathetic anthems for the downtrodden.

Let It Be: the 1984 album put Westerberg and company on the map.

The good news? Westerberg's new CD, Stereo/Mono, boasts a batch of worthy, thoughtful, rollicking additions to an already tuneful oeuvre. The witty wordplay, the pretty melodies, the boozy, swaggering backbeats – are all there. The recorded voice remains scraggly but sure, the playing still combines rolling bass lines and periodic moments of deft phrasing, along with the occasional well-placed trademark dishevelment.

"Let's Not Belong" is a smart, slinky anthem to brotherhood.

"With your eyes like sparks and my heart like gasoline, stay where you are," broods another song's protagonist.

"We may well be the ones to set this world on its ear," Westerberg posits in a third, "we may well get it done – why the hell else are we here?"

All three songs offer writerly storylines with thick, tough guitars and engaging solos. Background vocals are inventive and lively throughout the new CD. Slower songs display a yearning, confident voice that's half crooner, half Neil Young.

"There's a world in between being everything to everyone," begins a stained but beautiful two-minute ballad, "and being nothing to no one."

At least half of the 23-song project, reportedly recorded mostly solo and in the basement, is in much the same league. So maybe it was just isolated record-shop jitters in Portland, the second stop of Westerberg's in-store-only tour after a four-year hiatus. But the performance, despite providing a rare insight into a common thread of shared human fallibility, was clearly uncomfortable for all.

"I guess I really have suffered a lot of brain damage," he said near the hour-long show's abrupt end.

"I ain't got anything to say to anyone anymore," Westerberg sings in a new one that sounds like a hit. Unironically, the song falls apart – intentionally – for just a few seconds around the two-thirds point, before the whipcrack beat kicks back in and heads for home.

"I'm gonna let the bad times roll," goes another – one he managed to get all the way through on NW 23rd.

That's great, Paul, show us the way.

By April's end he turned up cross country on "Late Night With David Letterman," performing with a trio that included former Prince bandmate Michael Bland on drums and backing vocals. They did "Silent Film Star" and Westerberg came across as every inch the confident, eclectic rocker. He even plopped his goofy hat on Letterman's head before the last commercial break.

The rock-star psyche showed no apparent damage. And it should be noted: the Portland performance was free and most of the songs still sound terrific turned up loud and many days later, even now as I type. All is forgiven.

But if there's a next time, here's my request: Please, Paul, bring the words and set them on a stand.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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