The Disastrous Show That Made The Replacements Legendary
“Here’s another one you don’t wanna hear. And frankly, neither do I.”
“It’s the fucking last time you’ll ever hear it,” said Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson as he and the rest of the band tore through “Hootenany,” the last song during the last show the band ever played. Or so it was thought.
Of course at the time, nobody—not even The Replacements themselves—ever saw a reunion coming. But reunite they did, at least in the form of Stinson and Paul Westerberg, the group’s raspy-voiced lead singer, for a reunion tour that concluded in October. But Stinson’s remarks, as well as a series of other unexpected antics, placed the band’s show at Chicago’s Grant Park on July 4, 1991 as one of the most legendary concerts in history as 50,000 screaming fans bore witness to the very live and public breakup of one of rock & roll’s most underrated bands.
The Taste of Chicago is one of the country’s biggest outdoor food and music festivals. Andy Cirzan, vice president of concerts for Jam Productions Ltd., worked with Norm Winer from WXRT, a popular local radio station, to put the free concert together back in 1991. “We had pretty much free reign to do what we wanted to do… First thing we did was get hold of The Replacements and lock them in, you know, and it was perfect timing,” Cirzan says in a recent interview. “They hadn’t played Chicago yet on that tour. Then we built the rest of the bill, which nobody talks about all that much. It was pretty spectacular in its own right… we had NRBQ, a band, which is just legendary… we had a band from Chicago called Material Issue, a local buzz band. The crowd was gigantic, at least 50,000 people. It was packed.”
Music Critic Greg Kot was there, too, covering the concert for the Chicago Tribune. “They sounded really good. The only speculation about The Replacements is: how are they going to try to fuck it up this time?” says Kot as he reminisces. “It was kind of like a game. Are they going to play a legit show, really have it on full cylinder the whole time, or are they going to goof off? What kind of condition are they going to be in? And they came out and they looked really sober and focused. The first half of the show… they sounded like they were really on, and it was going to be a great show. And that was the feeling. And then something, just, you could feel it, like someone let the air out of a balloon. It was palpable. It was like all of sudden they had given up. They just stopped caring. They started making these really sarcastic remarks in the middle of songs. You got the sense that suddenly their hearts weren’t in it.”
Kot’s referring to the awkward comments by the band that, at the time, were taken as The Replacements simply being The Replacements. As Kot notes in his original review of the show, Westerberg introduces “Someone Take the Wheel,” a track off the band’s final album 1990s’s All Shook Down, by saying, “Here’s another one you don’t wanna hear… and frankly, neither do I.” And again, right before playing “Can’t Hardly Wait,” off their 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me, Westerberg and Stinson, as if telling an inside joke only they knew about, announced, “I can’t wait,” and then promptly left the stage. And then, of course, is Stinson’s “Hootenany” comment.
But that was just the beginning. During the encore (yes, there was an encore, even two, sort of) bandmates switched instruments with each other, regardless of skill level. Original members Paul Westerberg ditched guitar and vocals for drums and Stinson took over for Westerberg on vocals, while drummer Steve Foley, who replaced original member Chris Mars the previous January, attempted a guitar solo, albeit poorly. Slim Dunlap continued to play guitar, but at this point, incredibly sloppily. And then there was the moment that everyone seems to remember most, the “Hootenany” moment, when The Replacements walked offstage, one by one, only to be replaced by members of the road crew.
The band didn’t even finish its last song.
Kot remembers watching it from out in the audience, “They left without waving or bowing or acknowledging that they were now departing the stage yet again for the now-obligatory second encore. No, they just left and they handed their instruments to their roadies.”
Cirzan was sitting on the side stage with the WXRT DJs as the show was being broadcast live, “Normally in the past, The Replacements, when they went on their own little road and stuff, it was like, okay, it’s part of their dealio, they do what they want. It’s cool because it’s them. In this case, because it’s a live broadcast, and there’s 50,000 people in the park, the station was like, Do you know what’s going on here? and I was like, Uh, no but I can tell you it’s going to be one for the books.”
And it was. The Replacements’ 1991 Grant Park stage has risen to the ranks of other fabled live moments in rock and roll history—Jim Morrison allegedly masturbating onstage at a 1969 Florida concert, The Beatles’ final public concert atop the roof of London’s Apple Headquarters, and Ozzy Osbourne biting off a bat’s head at a 1982 Des Moines, Iowa concert, among others.
Out in the audience, Kot and others felt the same sense of confusion. “I remember talking to somebody I was there with, I think we might have just seen the last Replacements show. We knew it was the end of the tour, but the way they were talking, it was weird. I remember writing that in my review. I wouldn’t have written that if I didn’t have a really strong feeling that something was wrong, that this was not the way it was supposed to be, it was just going to be the last show…”
The Replacements formed in 1979 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and though the band never became a commercial success (and never really wanted to be), the group paved the way for the alternative music scene of the 1980s and early 1990s with albums such as Let it Be, Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, which are now considered classics.
The band’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and persona as lovable losers endeared them to its small-yet-loyal fan base, which included musicians Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams.
Fans who missed the show or who are too young to have attended, and even those who got to witness it the first time, have been able to relive the now-infamous show thanks to WXRT’s live broadcast, which was being recorded by the station and has circulated through bootleg networks over the years.
“What went on that day was the radio station broadcast the show in its entirety live… and I had the pleasure of putting on a pair of headphones that was taking the feed of the recording for the remote truck where they recorded it and simulcast it and the sound on it was just epic,” says Cirzan. “It wasn’t like a dude with his Sony cassette recorder out in the audience with a shitty little mike or something. It was done the right way and it shows.”
The show over the years has taken on an almost mythical status among fans as they pass along various versions of the recording affectionately calling It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Roadies Play, tweaking it the way they see fit, rearranging songs and editing out some of the chatter during the show, hoping that one day, it might be officially released as an album. Cirzan remembers, as if it was almost yesterday, “…I mean, I had the headphones on listening, the sound was amazing. It should be like a live record… Then bit by bit, during the encore set, things started to get a little odd. Of course, that Hank Williams tune, ‘Hey Good Lookin’ and we’re kind of going, Okay, we’re definitely moving into some strange territory for 50,000 but you know, it’s The Replacements; they play what they want. But as a certain point, when the instrumental handoff started taking place, the stage perspective of things in mind obviously were altered significantly and I was like, Ah, this is a new twist.”
Out of the many music and bootleg blogs devoted to The Replacements and live concerts in general, there’s one that has a transcription of the DJ commentary after the band left the stage. It speaks volumes:
DJ One: I believe the Replacements have left the stage and what a wild conclusion it was! But is it the conclusion?
DJ Two: Well, we sure don’t know, only the Replacements know for sure.
The crowd is still hungry out there.
They are nowhere to be found. They’re not on the side stage area either. I think they’re gone.
I think that’s it. They’re so unpredictable, though. Are they gonna come back?
Or they’re gonna break up? Maybe they’ll break up and then they’ll get back together and then they’ll come back.
I believe they’re not going to be back.
Kot, who had been to his fair share of shows, knew to expect the unexpected from the band. “Predicting The Replacements was like predicting the weather in Chicago, it’s going to change. You think it’s a great day, then five minutes later, it’s snowing or something. That’s the kind of way The Replacements were. So my general feeling was, here we go again.” All of a sudden, they were just dive-bombing on us, right in full view. And in that respect, it was like, ‘you know what? The Replacements, it makes sense.’”
“The Replacements have this kind of glorious moment where 99.9% of bands on the planet would have been celebrating the moment, celebrating themselves making it this far, really enjoying the moment,” says Kot. “And the Replacements were typically going to sabotage it somehow. And that sort of fit in with the whole narrative for The Replacements for a decade plus. And I’ve seen some disastrous shows and some amazing shows. And very seldom did you get a ‘tweener Replacements show; it was either a train wreck or they were the greatest band on earth and just performed. And this one was kind of both. They were ascending, ascending, ascending, and then they just plain nosedived. And I had never seen a show quite like that.”
Kot remembers fans shaking their heads, wrought with confusion, asking “What just happened? Did they just break up in front of us?” He doesn’t recall there being any formal announcement afterward. He just remembers Westerberg started to put out solo albums.
Cirzan laughs, “I can’t tell you everyone there had a blast, but it was one for the books…”
“They had every right to celebrate, every right to be the rock stars in their glory, but The Replacements were never about that,” says Kot. “And it only made sense that they would go out like this and in some way, you go, if they had to go out, it’s exactly the way they should go out, it’s exactly the way you want them to go out.”