As a white, male rock critic--a breed distinguished by its weakness for distorted guitars and suburban angst--I was convinced that the Mats were no ordinary band after listening to albums like Tim and Pleased to Meet Me. The final proof, though, came from watching this chaotic collection of poison personalities play live.
In the ten years that the Mats were "together" (in the loosest sense of that word), I saw five "performances" (even looser). The first was in 1984, just after Let It Be had shocked an unsuspecting world into believing these guys were the second coming of Krakatoa. Back then, few had any inkling that this inebriated quartet would become one of the chief architects of everything that's now crammed under the misnomer of "alternative" music. Without the Mats, there would be no Sub Pop, no Lollapalooza, no Nevermind.
That first night I saw them, the Mats were in a snotty mood. These were musicians famous for their excesses. Booze was their drug of choice. Staggering onstage an hour late, they proceeded to drink, chain-smoke, spew profanity and generally lay waste to everything within earshot. This vodka-fueled onslaught kept the crowd staring for two hours, despite the fact that the band played only one song in its entirety--Alice Cooper's "Under My Wheels." The rest of the set consisted of eight bars of this and eight bars of that, interspersed with demented cackling, calls for Ronald Reagan's assassination (or more beer) and rude asides about everyone from John Lydon to James Joyce. Playing originals was not a big concern. Keeping it loud and fun was.
But there was always a self-conscious edge to the Mats' self-destructive stageplay. They were good, and they knew it. Somehow, all four always managed to stay on the same, woozy page. And when they'd get serious for five minutes, everything would fall into place and a flash of genius would shoot through. Whatever this band said, spat or threw against a wall, it was an awesome force, capable of speed, passion, precision, humor, volume and the ability to outrock all the other punks on this planet.
But it was this taste for wanton calamity that eventually did the Mats in. When the band grew up and got tired of hangovers, it lost its edge, descended into bickering and died. Whether they liked it or not (they didn't, at first), the Mats couldn't help turning into adults.
That point was made abundantly clear last Friday night at Library Cafe, when Paul Westerberg brought his solo act to town. In place of the old, catch-as-catch-can song selection, there was a set list. Instead of old friends who played like pirates, there was a wondrously tight, focused band. Rather than a loud but charming drunk fest, this was a good, bordering on great, club show.
That's not to say that seeing Westerberg outfitted in his new veneer of civility isn't disconcerting, because it is. On Friday, he hopped onstage, stayed true to the set list, played the encore, said, "Thank you, Phoenix," and was gone. Clean and tidy.
Do I sound a little bitter? It's just that the spark that made the Mats a great band has been extinguished. Taken as a solo, though, Westerberg was superb. Despite reports that his voice was in a "fragile" state, The Paul sang-shouted beautifully. The new material from 14 Songs--First Glimmer," "World Class Fad" and "Knockin' on Mine"--showed that, contrary to Mats' fans worst fears, Westerberg has not lost the ability to rock. Neither has he become the detached, aloof rock star that the Mats' swan song, All Shook Down, seemed to suggest. Westerberg still has the desire; it's just that today, it's not magnified in a fun-house mirror of depravity.
While there will never be another band as telepathic as the Mats, Westerberg's new combo is loaded with talent. Drummer Josh Freese, in particular, is a mass of kinetic energy, all flailing sticks and virile snare rolls.
Those searching for a status report on Westerberg's twisted soul found their answer in the armful of Mats' chestnuts that accentuated the hour-plus set. Rather than turn his back on Mats material, he showed how much lust he still has for his past. While sober versions of "I'll Be You," "Alex Chilton" and, especially, "I Will Dare" didn't have the wicked edge of days gone by, they remain some of the most memorable punk-pop songs ever created.
The quality of this show is doubly impressive, considering that Library Cafe was a blast furnace. In an unwelcome repeat of the Danny Gatton concert at the Rockin' Horse in June, the air conditioning at the sold-out Library was a no-show. The heat took its toll. Guitarist David Minehan sustained a shock he attributed to the steamy environs. Following the show, Westerberg made an immediate exit, explaining later that he had a touch of heat stroke.
But just because Westerberg couldn't stand the heat doesn't mean he's lost all the old fire. He just grew out of a great band. His time to swill n' thrill is over. The old magic is undeniably gone, but being a tick or two past one's prime has rarely sounded this good.