For 25 years, WXRT has staged free concerts during the Taste of Chicago, mostly at the Petrillo Music Shell (which was originally intended as a temporary structure). Many of these shows were broadcast live, usually on the Fourth of July. Over the course of a quarter century, there have been many memorable moments. John Hiatt trying to get his set in before a monster thunderstorm hit, Wilco performing for the cameras for the rockumentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil pulling his 6 foot plus frame up the sound tower just to name a few.
But it was in 1991 that we were eyewitnesses for one of the great closing chapters in modern rock history. The Replacements came out of Minnesota. They had a little bit of mainstream success, even playing on Saturday Night Live at one point (a performance which caused them to be banned from the show for life). This was symbolic of their career arc. Brilliant, critically acclaimed albums which laid the foundation for alternative rock. Fractious, intergroup squabbling about the bands’ musical direction. Transcendent live performances followed by drunken, diatribe laden shows that were more comedy/drama than musical. If the chemicals were properly timed and titrated, they were one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever. If not, they were still pretty darn interesting. And in 1991, they were the headliners at the XRT Free Fourth of July concert. It was a beautiful, warm Independence Day. I arrived early, a few hours before show time and spotted Replacement’s lead singer Paul Westerberg smoking a cigarette, sitting on a curb backstage. I congratulated him on winning songwriter of the year from Rolling Stone magazine and talked about the possibility of an interview before or after the show. He said sure and walked back to the dressing room.
The show started about 3, support act Material Issue finished a short but powerful set, followed by NRBQ (and a slight rain delay) and then it was headliner time. After a rousing Johnny Mars intro (“Some people say they’re an institution, others say they should be in an institution!”) the Replacements took the Petrillo stage before a big partisan Grant Park crowd. Tom Marker and I anchored the live broadcast and the Replacements were at their best, (apparently) sober, tight and energetic, playing stuff from their most recent album at the time All Shook Down and mixing in some classics like “I Will Dare”. Then, after about ninety minutes or so, things started to unravel.
The band appeared to grow tentative and reluctant and way too casual. Songs trailed off without resolution. There were long, uncomfortable pauses. Eventually, the group started to hand off their instruments to their stage crew, even offering them to me and Tom at one point. (We refused, because we had to explain what was happening on the radio.) It was the Replacements essentially replacing themselves. It finally ended in squeals of feedback and confused people wandering around on stage, in the crowd and on the radio. The Replacements never took the concert stage again. There’s a partial transcript of our closing remarks on the liner notes of the compilation album All For Nothing/Nothing For All. (I’m dj “A” and Tom is dj “B”.)