POP MUSIC REVIEW : Laying Claim to the Title: Great Rock Songwriter of '90s

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Replacements circus was fun while it lasted, in its grisly way, if you liked watching things go down in flames. With its internal animosities and on-the-edge lifestyle, the consensus Great American Rock Group of the '80s generated a fascinating tension between great music and self-destruction.

What was clear on Tuesday at the Whisky, where former principal Replacement Paul Westerberg played his first L.A. show since the band's breakup, was that the circus was just a sideshow, and the music is what counts. Welcome the consensus Great American Rock Songwriter of the '90s.

No longer drunk and disorderly, Westerberg and his three new musicians blended an assortment of Replacements numbers with most of the material from his new solo album, "14 Songs." It was a slam-bang set that ranged from intense intimacy to explosive release.

Westerberg's new guys played with power and eagerness, and while they didn't evoke the Replacements' legendary sloppiness, they did muff enough parts to allow their leader to drop in a laughing wisecrack, and to cut off one song entirely. And when his mike went dead a couple of times, no problem--the fans simply turned up their own volume on the words they were already singing.

This amounted to the best features of the Replacements' unpredictability linking up with Westerberg's evolving songwriting. At this point, only the towering figure of the Kinks' Ray Davies stands above Westerberg in creating radiant emotional expression from the mud of chopping, churning guitars-bass-drums rock 'n' roll.

The new album's "First Glimmer," a glowing memoir of youthful romantic awakening, typifies his gift for releasing waves of rich emotion, and even in his rowdiest moments there are overtones of yearning and vulnerability.

There was a natural bias in the crowd toward Replacements favorites--after all, these are songs that have energized and comforted and guided them for years in the struggle to make sense of the heart and of the times. But down the line, the 1993 songs will get the same treatment, no question.

Westerberg's rigorous craft is disguised by the deceptive simplicity of his structures and the casual feel of the whole. The songs sound elementary and predictable when they start, but then a new hook or a twist of melody or a dynamic surge or an unexpected bridge suddenly opens up whole new levels of emotional meaning.

It's pretty miraculous, but in the hot, sweaty Whisky the prevailing feeling wasn't so analytical. It was a pure, basic rock 'n' roll show, with pop-hook sensibility blending with punk-rock intensity.

The audience treated Westerberg as both hero and old pal, and he proved to be charming and likable without laboring to impose a personality. He captured the spirit of a Midwest kid who loved it all, from Big Star to Black Sabbath, as long as it rocked, or touched a nerve, or made you laugh.

Afterward, you felt as if you'd worked together to figure some things out, to articulate feelings that had seemed impossibly elusive.

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