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Why the Replacements concert is such a big deal

How did a bunch of misfits from south Minneapolis become one of the state’s most beloved cultural icons?

The Replacements in their heyday. Left to right: The late Bob Stinson, Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars.
File photo by Daniel Corrigan

Tuesday night just before midnight in Minneapolis, the remade Replacements delivered a time-stopping version of “Alex Chilton” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

I watched on the TV above the front bar at Nye’s Polonaise Room with a roomful of friends, strangers, and several area musicians who’ve been inspired by the ‘Mats music. The low-burn scene served as a delicious appetizer for Saturday’s much-anticipated Replacements reunion concert at Midway Stadium in St. Paul.

Knocked out by the performance, I retreated outside to a rainy Hennepin Avenue to savor the moment until a friend came up. Shaking her head incredulously,  she said, “Why do I feel like I just got done watching the great Russian gymnasts score a perfect 10, and the Russian judges are giving them an 8?”

For the uninitiated, that may say everything you need to know about the Replacements and the town from which they hail. I actually heard no nay-saying firsthand Tuesday, but my friend’s comment illustrates something important: that, along with having inspired a few generations of uncommonly passionate fans, the Replacements come from the land of sky blue waters — from the warm and loving embrace of uneasily impressed passive-aggressive smart-asses who don’t want their hometown heroes getting too big for their britches.

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Including, it would seem, the band itself. Led by singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg and singer/bassist Tommy Stinson, their original heyday (1979-1991) was spent shooting themselves in both feet as they “climbed” the ladder of rock success. Along the way, founding guitarist Bob Stinson and founding drummer Chris Mars were replaced by guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap and drummer Steve Foley, and after plenty of critical acclaim but middling commercial success, the band ceased operations in 1991 (the elder Stinson died in 1995; Foley died in 2008, and Dunlap suffered a massive stroke two years ago).

Inspired by the rotten hand dealt to their old gunslinger pal, last year Westerberg and Tommy Stinson rebooted the ‘Mats with drummer Josh Freese, guitarist Dave Minehan, and Green Day guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong. The 13,000 tickets to Saturday’s homecoming show sold out in ten minutes.

So why, beyond their rich-beyond-its-years catalog and the fact that they remain one of rock’s flat-out greatest bands, does so much excitement surround this show? Part of the answer lies in the fact that everyone’s getting older. Life feels more precious and fragile, and for so many people who discovered it 33 years or three months ago, the Replacements’ music is an extremely intense experience for very personal reasons.

I’ve written two books about the ‘Mats, “All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History” (Voyager Press, 2007) and, with Dennis Pernu, “Waxed Up Hair and Painted Shoes: The Photographic History” (Voyageur Press, 2013), but because the band has never been more popular than they are at this moment, and because their history rewrites itself with every passing week since their reformation last August, I’m looking forward to Bob Mehr’s official bio on the band, “Trouble Boys,” slated to hit next summer.

I’m hoping to make more sense out of the story of these guys, whom I literally grew up with in the Catholic ghetto of south Minneapolis, a wild and innocent place of lakes, creeks and the Mississippi River that, for me, has always had a mystical hand in penning Westerberg’s (and many other’s) eternal fire-in-the-belly songs. Like the Delta blues or Appalachian mountain music, the ‘Mats ferocious rock feels rooted in the Minnesota soil and extreme seasons, and has proven historically to be as defining to this area as the polka and purple funk of yore.

And now here we are, on the cusp of what’s sure to be a special moment in the ‘Mats story. My own Replacements week started Monday on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown. I ran over to Magers & Quinn bookstore to fetch a silent auction-bound copy of “Waxed Up Hair” to run down to Hi Fi Hair & Records, whose owner, Jon Clifford, curated tonight’s Slim Dunlap benefit at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis. (In classic Replacements-esque fashion, the store was out of stock, though I was assured “14 copies” are on order.)

On my way in, just across the street from where it all started at the Uptown Bar — where some of the first ‘Mats shows took place and where the Stinson brothers’ mother, Anita, worked for years and which is now an Apple Store — I ran into an old songwriter friend of mine who asked if I was going to the Midway show. I told him I was, and he, a first-timer, wondered what to expect.

I told him I’d seen them in Chicago this time around, and that the main thing I was struck by is how there’s no preparing for the two-hour rush of emotion that happens while you’re hearing all those songs you’ve been listening alone to for so many years, but suddenly they’re unfurling in the open air with thousands of other like-minded and super-solitary souls whose creativity and very lives have been shaped by this great band.

It’s a big anti-tribe, singing along and doing the “let’s be different … together” boogie, and, well, dates to church like that don’t come down the pike every day.

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“I never thought of that,” he said. Then his eyes lit up, imagining that, and as we headed opposite ways down Hennepin, we jinxed each other.

“See ya Saturday.”