"We're the world's greatest Replacements cover band," Paul Westerberg cracked as his band took the stage Friday night at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. He may have been joking, but there was more than a little truth to his remark, in part because Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong would arrive a few songs later and take over vocal duties.
On the first day of the second weekend of the desert festival, a number of the marquee acts were seeking to recapture the magic of days gone by, including headliners Outkast. If reports from the first weekend of Coachella are to be believed, then the Replacements were also out to prove that the band could simply capture a share of the Coachella audience.
If the crowd was, shall we say, respectably quaint, the Replacements had more than a little fun toying with it. Less than 10 minutes in, Westerberg was on his back, his legs splayed across the armrests of a couch that was placed in front of the drum kit. Telling the crowd he had a sore back, Westerberg then handed vocal duties over to a bearded Armstrong for a significant chunk of the set.
What at first appeared to be a quick joke -- the Replacements, perhaps, mocking their own status as over-the-hill rockers on the Coachella bill, or the tacit acknowledgment that summer festivals have become a game of spot-the-guest-star -- only became more twisted and cynical as the set went on. "This is fun now," Westerberg said as he tossed off his thrift store-chic sport coat and settled in to watch Armstrong lead his band.
Armstrong took the lead on '80s standards such as "Kiss Me on the Bus" and "Color Me Impressed," the sort of sing-along rants to sexual frustration and misfit lonerism that Green Day took to the top of the pop charts in the mid-'90s. And through them both, Westerberg lay, occasionally singing a backing vocal, often smiling and regularly making the requisite jokes about the band forgetting its lyrics.
Sure, Replacements fans may not have waited two decades to watch Westerberg not sing lead on every song, but a hero's welcome for a band that was often combustible on stage would have been far more off-putting. There's no denying that attention at Coachella on Friday was elsewhere, and tackling such a setting with a devil-may-care attitude has always been part of the band's appeal.
One of the pillars of '80s indie-rock, the Replacements always catered to the in-the-know. The hooks were plentiful throughout the band's career, but the professionalism was more scattered. If the Replacements' guitars were sloppy, the sarcasm was on point, and tales of bungled romance and the-world-is-against-me bitterness were regularly delivered succinctly and with minimum fuss.
At a time when indie music was more of a business reality than a genre, those who discovered the band in its prime wore their cult music knowledge as a badge of honor. "You gotta understand, being a Replacements fan was a prerequisite for any girl I ever dated," Armstrong once told Spin magazine.
And Friday night he gushed that "dreams really do come true," all while bassist Tommy Stinson, who other than Westerberg is the only original member of the group left, made disparaging comments about the band's simple song structures. But what joy there is in simplicity, and if Westerberg had phoned the entire set in from the couch it may have been a different matter. But he supplied the sneer on "Bastards of the Young" and led the call-and-response punk rock mess of "I Don't Know."
More importantly, Westerberg was ready to take the lead on songs such as "Alex Chilton" and "Left of the Dial," tunes that not only romanticize our love of pop music, but helped forge the soundtrack for what was then a burgeoning independent community.
There were plenty more acts who impressed on Friday without drawing massive audiences -- the rootsy heartache of Neko Case, the all-black, all-the-time gloom of the Dum Dum Girls -- and the Replacements imagined a universe where the script was flipped and the outsiders won.
Coachella could have captured that universe, but one must wonder if the fest in 2014 is the best place for a beloved cult act to take a victory lap.
While the festival's brand has long been associated with resurrecting the forgotten and the under-appreciated artist -- past sets by the Pixies and the Stooges were defining moments in each artist's comeback ascent -- Coachella's high price ($375) and 2010 shift away from single-day entry has gradually tilted the crowd to one that overwhelmingly was here to dance, first and foremost.
There was no doubt on Friday that Coachella's Saraha Tent was the main attraction, the ground-zero for attention-deficit EDM where young pop remixers Martin Garrix and Zedd drew bottlenecking crowds. A lesser-known band that parted more than 20 years ago doesn't stand a chance against such earth-shattering bass and lasers that appear to be of military strength, at least when it comes to drawing a crowd.
So how did the members of Replacements respond? By being perhaps the only Coachella act to stage an encore while acting like they owned the place, sofas and all.