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Westerberg Adds New Depth to His Passion for Playing

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the El Rey Theatre on Saturday, Paul Westerberg took things a stirring step beyond the spirited exuberance that keyed his 1993 solo tour, his first after being unshackled from the tensions of the Replacements, the Minneapolis band he led through a colorfully unruly 20-year career.

His fans couldn’t have asked for much more than this show’s range of material and level of execution. Guitarists Westerberg and Tommy Keene, bassist Ken Justine and drummer Josh Freese delivered the leader’s songs with assuredness and ferocity, interlocking with thrilling finesse at high velocity at one moment, then providing the softest of shadings for a tender ballad at the next.

Their empathy and dynamism were enough to give a good name to professionalism. Their tightness wasn’t a matter of being clinical and accommodating. It was a reflection of their respect for the music and the audience.

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That professionalism, as well as the show’s pacing and the sound’s balance, weren’t exactly the qualities that made the Replacements such a beloved institution. When that band’s chaos and conflict wore thin, Westerberg went solo with the intent of cementing his reputation as a great American singer-songwriter.

But once an underdog, always an underdog, it appears. As was his debut album, “14 Songs,” the recent “Eventually” has been a commercial disappointment. So the Replacements’ old spirit of having something to prove remained as a driving force in Saturday’s show. Without belaboring the point, Westerberg simply asserted his will to survive through the quality and passion of the playing.

The crowd may have been smaller than his original game plan once envisioned (he was scheduled for two nights at the 900-capacity El Rey and plays the Troubadour on Tuesday), but there was a lot of loyalty concentrated in the gathering.

This wasn’t an audience inflated with drop-ins checking out a passing radio hit. It was a serious, hard-core crowd with two decades of goodwill, partaking of music that accompanied, illuminated, defined, challenged and questioned their rites of passage.

Westerberg’s songs have both distinctly individual features and a genetic bond with rock traditions. There’s invariably an urgent kick to the beat and a buoyant lift to the melody and the guitar hooks. Rage is usually tempered by ruefulness, skepticism by sentimentality, and he sings his intimate anthems in a voice toughened by trials, a shredded but tenacious instrument fighting the elements.

The question is whether his newer material--more reflective, mellower, more considered--can become more than a postscript to his great Replacements work. The new songs held their own in the wide overview Westerberg presented, but when it came time to cap the night, he turned to his old band’s pinnacles, mainly songs from “Tim” and “Pleased to Meet Me.”

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* Paul Westerberg plays Tuesday at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood,7:30 p.m. $15.50. (310) 276-6168.

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