It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Two kids from New Hope shouldn’t have been able to get as famous as they did by performing original tunes about regional breakfast meat sandwiches and “The Refrigerator That Wouldn’t Close” (an actual early song title). It doesn’t make sense that anyone would have paid attention to two high school kids playing guitar and singing over a pre-recorded drum and bass track from a DAT tape. It’s nothing short of miraculous that at age 22, they would release a major label debut with song titles like “Flies On My Dick” and “Poop Ship Destroyer”, let alone that it would produce a charting single.
They shouldn’t have risen to festival-headlining status. They shouldn’t have been able to cultivate a ravenous, age-spanning fan base with a culture and mythology all their own. It defies logic that 28 years after these two best friends started their band, that they would suddenly split up, leaving their fans confused, outraged, and devastated.
Ween’s very existence is mysterious. Their rise and fall is as unlikely as their genre-bending catalogue of music is vast. Quite possibly the only thing that makes sense about Ween is their triumphant reunion, currently 13 shows deep. Their music, however, is still just as impossible to pin down as it ever was. They play festivals with jam-band-heavy lineups, but who would call Ween a jam band? They don’t exactly “jam”, although in their prime, versions of their funk odyssey “Let Me Lick Your Pussy” were known to cross the half-hour mark. They’re musical character actors, not just channeling the vibe of an 80’s hair-metal anthem or a drunken sea shanty, but fully committing and embodying the spirits of these songs. They can be 12 different bands across the span of a record, which is precisely why I jumped at the opportunity to see them play three times in a single week.
Festival Pier, Philadelphia, 8/21/16
Festival Pier felt like meeting up with old friends. Gene and Dean had been gone for years, and they undoubtedly had many stories to tell upon their big return home. Torrential downpours that continued throughout the afternoon let up just in time for the crowd to make their way in, and just as night fell and a haze of fog formed over the thousands in attendance, Aaron Freeman, Mickey Melchiondo, Dave Dreiwitz, Claude Coleman, and Glenn McClelland took the stage and greeted us with a high-energy opening stanza of “Nan”, “Transdermal Celebration” and “The Grobe.” “Roses Are Free” left me wishing that the sound at Festival Pier was a bit more accurately tuned for the band, as Dean and Gene’s dual guitar leads felt washed out and thin. The setlist staple “Buckingham Green” that followed, however, felt like being crushed by a tidal wave. The evening’s first big surprise came in the form of “Did You See Me,” a slow ballad from Shinola, Vol. 1, the band’s outtakes and rarities record.
“Frank,” a cut from The Pod, received the most enthusiastic reaction from the crowd yet, and paid tribute to the band’s favorite Philly sandwich, the pork roll, egg, and cheese. “Happy Colored Marbles” was a highlight, as things hadn’t gotten too weird up until this point. Deranged, David Byrne-ish lyrics were chanted over a droney dirge in the verses, serving as an almost comical counterpoint to the saccharine, major key euphoria of the choruses. The song culminated with an extended, guitar-driven romp through the coda, which gave Deaner an opportunity to shred for a bit. “Gabrielle,” another Shinola rarity, was welcome to some and sent many others for the beer lines. “The Stallion, Pt. 1”, however, brought everyone back just in time for a brief foray into an alternate arrangement, as Gener and Deaner ditched their respective Les Paul and Strat in favor of a pair of acoustic guitars. “Did you feel that?” asked Freeman of the crowd, “It just crossed over into ‘the thing’.” “Kim Smoltz” was a big surprise, “Chocolate Town” was a given, and “Tried and True” was an absolutely beautiful showcase of Melchiondo’s delicate guitar work. Back in electric mode, the band had a few more surprises for us.
“Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down),” a song about a very sick child facing his own mortality, preceded rockers “Wavin’ My Dick In The Wind” and “Dr. Rock” in the show’s home stretch. “Freedom of ‘76,” perhaps the ultimate Philadelphia song, was at the top of just about everyone’s list for this show, and closed out the 28-song set in a very fitting tribute to the city that Ween called home. Before encores “Big Jilm” and “Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?,” Freeman and Melchiondo took a moment to thank the crowd for braving the weather before closing with what I felt to be the show’s biggest highlight, “Buenas Tardes Amigo”, a long-winded murder ballad written in 5th grade level Spanglish. It’s songs like this that really display this band’s ability to both embody and parody a style without becoming a parody band. Here’s a song that gets intensely heavy and can stand alone as a powerful statement in the encore slot, and yet we’re cracking up the entire time at lyrics like “maybe I’d sell you a chicken with poison interlaced with the meat”.
Lock’n Festival, Virginia, 8/25/16
A few days later, I had the pleasure of seeing Ween perform a pair of shows as headliners of Lock’n, a relatively young music festival in rural Virginia known for jam-heavy lineups and numerous artist collaborations. Pete Shapiro, the promoter mastermind behind Brooklyn Bowl and last summer’s Grateful Dead 50th Anniversary shows in California and Chicago, started this festival in 2013 and has been consistently building it up each year with bigger headliners and improvements to the grounds. This year featured a rotating main stage, allowing sets to flow right into the next band with no down time. Ween would headline the festival’s Thursday night and co-headline the Friday night lineup before Phish.
The significantly larger crowd as compared to the Philly show seemed to induce some nervous energy into the band. They played it fairly safe and opened with a string of six songs that were all played at the Philly show before launching into a sequence of five others not seen at that show. “A Tear For Eddy” featured a lengthy intro jam before launching into the song proper, which quickly turned into a Deaner Guitar Clinic for the next eight minutes. It was at this point that the band, to my ears, felt loose and became willing to let songs unfold and develop.
“Baby Bitch” and “Boys Club” came next and lightened the mood a bit before concise readings of “Up On The Hill” and “Nan.” “I’m In The Mood To Move,” wherein Melchiondo discusses the distance and method of his transportative desires, featured Deaner shouting the lyrics into a megaphone over Dreiwitz’ wobbly bass stabs. The megaphone would stick around for the next tune “Pumpin’ For The Man”, a crass ode to Deaner’s teenage job of pumping gas at a New Hope service station. “Pumpin” gave Dreiwitz a chance to flex his bass skills in preparation for his late night set with his side project, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, who would perform a few hours later at another stage. “Puerto Rican Power,” a psuedo-political punk tune, preceded classics “Fat Lenny” and “Japanese Cowboy.” As the latter ended, Gener squinted out at the crowd and remarked “Thanks! There’s still some people here…that’s cool!”
“Fluffy” started off on awkward footing, and was aborted and restarted after the first line was botched, but ended up producing a thrilling Deaner-led jam that serenaded the confused Ween-first-timers as they headed back to their campsites. “Push Th’ Little Daisies,” the band’s highest charting single, came next and preceded “I Play It Off Legit,” performed for only the third time since it was recorded in 1992. By now, the band clearly felt like they could play anything, as referenced by the show’s climactic exclamation point, “Poop Ship Destroyer.” This version got about as brown as Ween can possibly get. After a full run through the noisey, octavey, fuzzy, riffy tune, Deaner squelched and squealed an orchestra of delayed guitar noises as Gener heavily detuned his voice and chanted over a cacophony of noise, cackling like a swamp witch as they brought the riff back in. “Zoloft,” a ditty about the wonders of antidepressants, and a severely slowed-down run through the Steely Dan influenced “Pandy Fackler” would cap off this triumphant performance, leaving a thick cloud of fog and utterly baffled hippies in its wake.
Lock’n Festival, Virginia, 8/26/16
Ween returned to the Lock’n stage the following night to deliver a much more concise performance, devoid of much of the weird, wonderful antics of Thursday’s show, but nonetheless enjoyable. Early highlights included the “Pork Roll Egg and Cheese” opener (perhaps a nod to the Philly natives in attendance), the instrumental “Ice Castles,” and the deeply psychedelic “Mutilated Lips.” “Take Me Away” falls somewhere between The Doors and Van Morrison, and got the afternoon crowd moving a bit despite the oppressive heat. Billy Joel-esque piano rocker “Even If You Don’t” was pleasant as ever, and was followed by a string of repeats from the Philly show. “The Stallion pt. 3” was a welcome debut for the week and “Piss Up A Rope,” a cut from the Ben Vaughn-produced 12 Golden Country Greats, broke up the monotony and provided a big sing-along moment. “Buckingham Green” was a big serenade to the setting sun and sent the band off to a raucous applause. An hour and twenty minutes into their scheduled two-hour set slot, Ween was done for the weekend.
In 2016, it’s become commonplace, almost laughably predictable, for bands that were big in the 80’s or 90’s to break up for some time and conveniently reunite just in time for festival season. LCD Soundsystem, Neutral Milk Hotel, At The Drive-In, Phish, and the list goes on and on. When this happens, a funny thing tends to happen to the respective fan bases: they’re split down the middle as to whether the reunion is a good thing or a bad thing. Many LCD Soundsystem fans spent a ton of money on aftermarket tickets to see the band’s final shows at Terminal 5 and MSG. Some Phish fans trudged twenty miles in knee-deep mud to get to Coventry to wish their band farewell. Years later, when the band comes back, does it do something to invalidate those experiences? Does it make these diehard fans wonder if it was all worth it? All of this doesn’t even enter into the burning question on most fans’ minds: Will they still be any good?
Ween never had a big farewell tour. They never really had the chance to say a proper goodbye. One minute we had Ween, the next, we didn’t. Now that they’re back, my assessment is that although they are playing as well as they were in the late 2000’s, they’re not all on the same page. These shows gave me the impression that Mickey Melchiondo and the rest of the band are ecstatic to be back on the road and playing these songs again. Aaron Freeman, on the other hand, seemed distant, despondent, and in a hurry to wrap things up for the duration of the run. He tried to end the Thursday Lock’n set early after “Someday” by saying goodnight and walking off, but the rest of the band simply kept playing, forcing him to return for a few more tunes. While it’s beautiful to see everyone back together, I fear that Gener’s heart just isn’t in it anymore. Whatever the case may be, I’m glad that he is healthy again.
Sunday’s Philadelphia show was a fun, high-energy greeting from old friends. Thursday’s Lock’n show was a deep, dark behemoth of a show that provided a brief glimpse into the majestic weirdness that characterized classic Ween in their heyday. Friday’s Lock’n show felt rushed, disjointed, and not all that enthusiastic. All things considered, I am hopeful for the remainder of Ween’s tour that they’re able to find the comfort zone that they managed to inhabit on Thursday evening.
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