Paul Westerberg and Patti Rothberg, Saratoga Winners (Cohoes, New York), July 26, 1996

One-time Replacement Paul Westerberg opened his Saratoga Winners set with the line “All my life . . . waiting for somebody” and closed nearly two hours later singing “Never mind . . . it’s just a waste of time.” Reading those two lines as a couplet gives you the distilled essence of the Paul Westerberg songwriting experience, with every moment of hopeful longing perfectly balanced by an equal and opposite moment of cynical resignation. Sounds like real life, huh? That’s probably why Westerberg’s lyrics speak so strongly to so many people; there’s nothing like hearing a perfect, concise rock song with a singalong chorus about you. Westerberg offered 27 great singalong choruses last Friday and the huge crowd at Winners did a damn fine job singing a long with all of them. (Which was actually helpful, as Westerberg is one of those croaky singers who sounds best when he’s screaming, but also tends to lose lines here and there when his larynx seizes up from being repeatedly ground into throatburger).

Paul Westerberg (performer) all too often gets overshadowed in the media by Paul Westerberg (songwriter) or Paul Westerberg (crank), but I’m here to tell you that the rock frontman I saw last Friday night ranks up there with the charismatic greats of the genre. His voice was ragged and his band was sloppy, but what they lacked in polish they more than made up for in panache. The Replacements also had a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-sloppy-parts flavor, which conventional wisdom attributed to stock intangible “chemistry”. After seeing Westerberg get Replacements-on-a-good-night-like results from his new band, however, I’m more apt to now acknowledge that Westerberg’s own ’80s stage presence certainly must have served as a critical catalyst sparking that unstable ‘Mats chemistry. I honestly believe he could strike sparks with just about any functional backing trio, were he inclined to do so. He’s that good.

Westerberg’s song selection was evenly split between his two solo albums and the Replacements’ catalog, with a rip-snort on David Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing” thrown in for good measure. Westerberg kept the nostalgia factor down by reinventing some of the oldies: “Waitress in the Sky” got a blues implant, “Can’t Hardly Wait” sounded lean and mean when stripped of its horn and string studio embellishments, “Left of the Dial” had its tempo nearly doubled, allowing it to segue cleanly into the zippy “Alex Chilton”. Songs from the new Eventually fared equally well, with the poignant “Angels Walk” and “Mama Daddy Did” nicely complementing the piss-off airs of “Ain’t Got Me” and “Once Around the Weekend”. During the cacophonous interlude between main set and encore, I started thinking that there was something wrong with the world when a great talent like Paul Westerberg was still playing small- to mid-sized clubs, but when Westerberg returned with “Swinging Party” it dawned on me that it was actually a pretty darn good world that allowed us to see him up-close-and-personal. Perspective is everything.

Patti Rothberg’s opening set could have been a show-stealer had Westerberg not shone so brightly. Rothberg fronted a tight five-piece band (special kudos to drummer Adrian Harphan) and worked through most of her debut album, Between the One and the Nine. Rothberg’s a gifted guitarist who doesn’t confuse flash with feel and she’s got a strong voice that approaches the arithmetic mean between Joan Jett and Kate Bush. Hell . . . even Paul Westerberg said nice things about her, and he didn’t even bother to introduce his own band. That’s impact.

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