On Ween, Melvins, and Aging...Gracefully?

Fri Sep 15 2023

Even when you’re trying your best to keep up with the times, you’re going to end up with nostalgia from your formative years shoved down your throat. Is it even worth resisting? SOME of that music from the ‘90s was actually good, right? Some of the people who made that music are still worth our time…RIGHT?

Exhibit A: why would I pass up free tickets to see the Melvins at the Rave? (Actually—THE RAVE II, which is what they’re calling the basement now.) If I were indeed ‘keeping up’ I would’ve known that drummer Dale Crover is sitting out this tour due to emergency spinal surgery, but I didn’t know that until the trio came onstage last Thursday. While there’s no replacing Crover, particularly when the band is playing its landmark 1991 album BULLHEAD every night, the Melvins were fortunate to have Big Business’s Coady Willis ready to fill in at the drop of a hat. I was never a huge fan of the Melvins having two drummers, so this was a (hopefully) rare opportunity to see Willis as the lone man behind a kit for them.

They didn’t play BULLHEAD in order, mixing the tracks up instead and adding a handful of other faves into the mix, an astute choice considering the swing and cadence of that album is a pure Crover clinic, a subconscious metronome for Melvins fans. The group left this deceptively simple approach behind long ago, though, and last Thursday’s set felt just like lots of other modern Melvins sets, i.e. they played everything too fast. But I say that even when Crover’s up there. I still love this band; I just miss the old days when sometimes we had to wait an eternity between beats.

They saved “Boris” for last, naturally, as a nod to the night’s co-headliners. As much as I always love the Melvins live, Boris sort of outclassed them quickly. I’d never seen them before and although I knew basically what I was in for, I didn’t realize how catchy and punchy some of these songs were going to be, and I didn’t know the trio was such a democratic endeavor. All three members sang, and all took moments in the spotlight, not so much to solo as to command extra attention as the full force of the group steamrolled ahead.

However they too stuck to playing oldies (2002’s HEAVY ROCKS album, specifically) despite releasing three albums last year. The most recent song the Melvins had played was “A History Of Bad Men” off 2006’s (A) SENILE ANIMAL, even though they’ve got a plethora of good-to-great material from the past several years they could be pulling from. You might say they’re just playing the hits.

Have these people been hanging out with Dee Snider lately or something? Poor Dee has seen his stock rising of late, due to various misguided comments he’s lobbed at the media that have made him more popular with the ‘freedom fuck yeah’ crowd. One of his dumbest opinions recently, though, came as an incidental pot-shot at Metallica, who are currently doing a tour of no-repeat two-night stands (see my last post for more on that: http://www.you-phoria.com/Blog/2023/August/metallica-or-sofi-stadium-or-8-25). Mr. Snider called this approach “self-serving” and expanded a bit: “The majority of the people going to these shows…they’re there for the hits. The percentage of people who know the deeper cuts and are willing to accept not hearing ‘Enter Sandman’ one night, that’s a very small bunch of people.”

On one hand, yes, Twisted Sister only had two songs anyone’s ever heard, and it may be hard for Dee to comprehend fandom that goes beyond this. He went on to invoke icons such as Iron Maiden and even Paul McCartney to prove that nobody’s fans even enjoy new material from legacy acts. It goes back to the ancient joke about (insert classic rocker name here) releasing their new album EXCUSE TO TOUR; as a general rule, yes, the majority of the people shelling out their money wanna hear their old favorites.

Metallica’s “self-serving” gesture, however, resulted in about 160,000 asses in seats over two nights in L.A. They played six songs from their new album over the two shows. I was at one of the shows and I didn’t notice anyone throwing stuff or demanding their money back. Fans tend to know what they’re getting into these days. Set aside five minutes of your live for research: THEY PLAY “ENTER SANDMAN” NIGHT TWO. But this isn’t why Dee’s comment bugs me. I’m sick of the attitude that performing arts are a one-way commodity exchange. If you are an artist, you should be putting into the world whatever you’re moved to put into it, even if it sucks ass. Catering to fans is the opposite of art. I know, I know, bread, rent, reality, just bear with me for a second. What Dee actually means is that when HE plays songs people don’t know, they don’t give HIM the rush he needs. Playing the hits is ultimately the self-serving move; anyone in the audience truly engaged with a performance will respond to whatever material you the performer believe in, and if they don’t, they shouldn’t have bought the goddamn ticket. It doesn’t have any song titles printed on it after all now does it.

Somebody should take Dee on a thrill ride through the setlists from the ongoing Ween tour, which I caught on Sunday when it made a stop in Madison at The Sylvee (“exhibit B”?). Here’s a band that formed the same year Twisted Sister hit the big time (and toured with Metallica as its opening act!) and also has at most two songs any non-fan would recognize. You might say they ‘toiled in obscurity’ for decades. The big difference, though, was that they didn’t give a fuck. They haven’t written a single song yet that suggests a fuck either Deaner or Gener has given about making this Ween endeavor lucrative for anyone.

The other big difference is that as a live band, Ween have gotten incrementally better year after year. Just a theory but this might have something to do with their decision to make every song they write sound completely different from all their other songs. Eventually if you can get competent at playing that many different styles, you might discover that there’s nothing you can’t play. Whereas Twisted Sister and all the ‘80s pop-metal bands and virtually every pop-adjacent artist under capitalism for the love of pete tried to keep writing songs that sounded like all the other songs that made money for their CEOs.

Nowadays, Dee Snider’s best career options are to glom onto some frankenhair tour and/or do podcasts and satellite radio and whatnot. (Nothing wrong with that! He is a compelling talker and until pretty recently I thought he was a kickass human being and for all I know he still is and just has to maybe educate himself a bit. Love you Dee.) Meanwhile Ween play to packed houses all by themselves wherever they go. They served themselves I guess.

Sunday night opened with the instrumental bop “Fiesta”, which immediately struck me as an homage to a song Weird Al sometimes opens shows with, “Fun Zone”. Like Ween, Al’s band had to get good at every genre, and although both artists are obviously rooted firmly in comedy, I sense a deeper parallel. I realized it while they were playing “Transdermal Celebration” and then “Beacon Light”, two songs that might as well have been conceived as Stone Temple Pilot parodies. That’s how I thought of a lot of Ween’s music as a youngster—they’re simply mocking some mainstream band or style. That’s what my friends and I spent a lot of time doing in the ‘90s, sitting around making fun of popular music (and people).

So what, maybe they wrote some of their songs or all of their songs as a ‘fuck you, even WE can do this’. Nowadays not only do these tunes stand on their own, they come off as loving nods rather than mockery. And maybe that’s just me, too, but that realization regarding Weird Al changed my appreciation for him completely, and if Ween were only out to take the piss, why bother getting this GOOD at it?

It hardly matters, because as Ween took us through a sharknado of divergent, dynamic oddball tunes for nearly three hours on Sunday, it didn’t feel at all haphazard. Through the years a distinctive Ween style has come into existence, even if it encompasses an awful lot. It’s all tied together by Gener’s incredible commitment to every bit, and the wonderful thing is, people are beginning to acknowledge what a masterful vocalist he is. Whereas in the case of King Buzzo, the world acknowledged him (deservedly) as a legend decades ago, and we take his iconic, ageless growl for granted. It takes longer when you’re thought of as a joke band, but Gener will eventually be recognized as one of the greatest and most versatile vocalists of the past 30 years.

Before I saw this band live, I thought of Ween as Gene and Dean and WHOEVER. That’s changed too. (How many members of Twisted Sister can you name?) You might recall all the alt-rock bands used to record a single joke country song, for instance, whereas Ween did a whole country ALBUM. And while you never saw a band like Sonic Youth or Pearl Jam who could pull off an alternate genre without it sounding like a novelty, I get the feeling Ween could easily do entire genre SHOWS if they wanted. Unlike Weird Al, though, it’s not a scattershot routine; Ween slip in and out of styles as if they invented each one.

They have their roots in punk, of course, so it might’ve surprised some fans when Dean dedicated “Bananas And Blow” to the late Jimmy Buffett. Now there’s a guy I probably could’ve been a big fan of, except he had that one big hit that I absolutely couldn’t stand, and although that wasn’t the only factor (hippies: bad! country music: lame! tequila: gross! was a pretty easy credo to stand by as a teenager), now I regret never making the time to at least go to ONE Buffett show. I bet he played “Margaritaville” every single night.

Punks paying tribute to Jimmy Buffett, what’s the world coming to. Perhaps even more surprising, though, to anyone who only knows Ween as a joke band: the tender situations. There was nothing ironic, for instance, about Glenn McClelland’s mesmerizing jazzy piano excursion in “You Were The Fool”; I saw some dropped jaws during this. Gene’s crooning of “Slow Down Boy”, explain to me why that was funny. And if you were there, you know the glory of the “Fluffy” finale. What band of any genre wouldn’t hope to achieve such a high to finish off a concert?

Thinking back to the first time I saw Ween live (Bonnaroo ’02), they blew me away as a joke band wayyyy overperforming. I wasn’t far off the mark. Listening back now, they still sounded like a garage band in ’02. There was scant earnestness in Gene’s voice. For all I know they were nonplussed at playing in the blazing sun at a hippie festival. (Although they DID sing the last verse of “Roses Are Free” that day.) In Ween terms it was a total greatest-hits set. Nowadays there’s no such thing. It’s an utter crapshoot night to night; very few songs they’ve ever released are off the table, and dozens more they haven’t released are always in play.

For instance, on Sunday, the printed setlist showed “The Stallion, Part 1”, with another part penciled in for later in the set, but a group of fans in the pit chanting “FOUR MORE STALLIONS” evidently prompted Ween to follow immediately with “Part 2”. After which Dean said “Fuck it, just go ahead” and they did the other three! At the time I was trying to remember how many there were; the first two are songs whose structures are pretty loose to begin with and the only reason I knew we were experiencing the full pentalogy was the way the crowd was fizzing (I had not heard the chanting). How is it possible that this was only the 12th time in their career they’d ever played Part 2 live?? That’s the best one!?! And Part 4, which isn’t on an album and I’d never heard before, only the eighth time ever. This was just one of those mythical occurrences you don’t bother to hope for. I’d take it over Gamehendge any day.

It all comes back to unpredictability. Ween occasionally jam, but not to the extent that old-school Bonnaroovians crave. When they jam, it’s a special treat. When they do little themed interludes (like pairing “Captian Fantasy” with “Don’t Get 2 Close 2 My Fantasy”, for instance, or “Squelch The Weasel” and “I Gots A Weasel” like they did last night in New York), another delight. Primarily, though, Ween shows are about the way goofy kernels of songs burst to life in the hands of this ever-more-powerful rock(etc.) band. It used to be that “Buckingham Green” was thee explosive head-turner; now half their songs are like that. Against all odds, a former drug band cleaned up and learned how to melt faces in a completely sober manner, and got wayyyy better in the process. Has that EVER happened before?

It remains true, though, that so far since their 2015 reunion, Ween too only play oldies; their most recent studio stuff came out in 2007 and whether they’ll make more records is anyone’s guess. The way they push forward is constantly reimagining and reconfiguring the 300-odd songs they already have in their repertoire, keeping them nimble and malleable as a live act. Catering to fans, and also refusing to cater to fans. On Sunday there was a group of dudes behind us who kept screaming for “Poopship Destroyer” after every fucking song. I found out afterwards that “Poopship” was on the planned setlist, but the unscheduled Stallion suite had wedged it out! Nothing against “Poopship”; is the lesson here to get closer to the stage if you want the band to heed you, or to be a less obnoxious person so the band doesn’t get so sick of hearing you that they axe the very song you were pining for? Only The Boognish knows for sure.

I used to have favorite Ween songs myself, songs I hoped to hear. Songs that reminded me of this or that time in my life. Ween have finally put that out of my head. I’ve always wished I could get to this point with Phish but it hasn’t worked out; they have too many bad songs, and Ween has…do they have any bad songs? Once upon a time I would’ve definitely said yes. I can’t think of one off the top of my head, though, not the way they play ’em nowadays. Time after time, Ween in the flesh make every song such an event, I couldn’t care less which ones they play. Even if you were a strictly rock-and-roll diehard, you would’ve walked out of The Sylvee Sunday night with a lawnmower up your ass. Maybe they’re finally as ravenous as these songs they wrote deserved all along.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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