Part 1 – Weezer and I: It’s Complicated
Weezer can probably be credited as the first band that gave me a personal interest in finding and discovering music for myself. This may be odd, as the band has always had radio hits. Perhaps they are the first band who I heard on the radio with their hit of the time – Island In The Sun? Hash Pipe? – and thought to myself, “I wonder what else this band has to offer.”
What did I find? The Blue Album and slightly later, Pinkerton. Two albums that defined the trajectory of my musical interest for years to come. I became a regular reader of Weezer’s web forum first to read about Weezer in the ATW (All Things Weezer) section, but eventually ended up hearing about lots of other bands in the All Bands Not Weezer (ABNW) section. I got into Bright Eyes, Neutral Milk Hotel and tons of other great bands through this forum.
I also gained a moderate obsession with the band. I downloaded countless rarities, old concert bootlegs, covers and pretty much anything Weezer related I could get my hands on. My strong interest continued despite the release of Maladroit in 2002, which is surely a horrible record. Fortunately, by the time Make Believe came around in 2005, I had moved on to unhealthy interests in other bands.
From Maladroit to present, Weezer has showered us with 5 albums ranging from slightly above average to horrible. Each album has challenged fans of their first two albums to reevaluate what was so great about the band, and what changed. Has the band changed? Has the age and interests of their old fan base changed? How can a fan base survive 5 disappoints in a row and still be comfortable expressing an appreciation for a band who’s last truly great record was released nearly 15 years ago?
Part 2 – The Buildup
With these questions in the back of my mind, I took a drive to Chicago to see Weezer play shows on January 7 and January 8 at the Aragon Ballroom. This was part of a limited run tour that targeted these Weezer fans who tolerate their new work only because of their love of their early albums. That’s me. They were going to play The Blue Album + hits the first night and Pinkerton + hits the second night.
When these shows were announced, there was no doubt in mind that I had to go to both of them. My friend brought the tickets and informed me that the Blue Album show sold in in less than 5 minutes and the Pinkerton show was sold out by the end of the day. I wasn’t the only one excited about these shows. Weezer has an army of fans silently tolerating their work looking for a glimpse to the past, but I think everyone knows that this isn’t an option at this point. Weezer isn’t going to create another masterpiece, so seeing them perform the two that they already created was the best we were ever going to get.
Prior to these shows, I had seen Weezer perform twice, once on a late Green Album tour and once on the Make Believe tour. Regardless of, the quality of their current material, both shows were fantastic. Watching Weezer on a stage is completely different than listening to a Weezer album. The dismal lyrics, forced rhymes, generic instrumental arrangements– everything just becomes a part of the Rivers Cuomo show. He’s a man who has a combination of adorable nerdiness, passionate charisma and stage awkwardness that lead to a show without a dull moment.
So, Friday I left work early and headed up to Chicago to see a pair of shows I had been dreaming of for year: The band I loved playing the albums I love. Two nights of musical bliss. I got caught up in some traffic and didn’t get parked outside the Aragon until around 6:45, about 15 minutes after the doors opened. I paid too much for parking, and we only got decent spots instead of incredible ones.
Part 3 – Night 1: The Blue Album
At about 7:45, the opening band came out. The opening band (both nights) was a pretty “eh” band called the Limousines. I don’t envy their job though. The first night, they tried to interact with the audience in between songs to rather mixed results. The second night, they just played their set minus banter and this went over much better. That’s enough about the Limousines though. This isn’t about them.
Weezer came out at about 8:42 and killed it from the beginning. The first half of their set was a spattering of material from every album they have ever released. Both nights, they opened with the song Memories from their latest release, Hurley. This was the only song they played from this album either night. There isn’t a whole lot good to say about the overall quality of Weezer’s recent studio output, but it safe to say that each album has a few songs that are at least a lot of fun live.
Throughout the first half of the set, they stuck to the fun songs. Never burdening the audience with one of their slower cuts and primarily sticking to hits. The band worked in reverse chronological order from their newest stuff to their oldest. Pork & Beans, Keep Fishin, Island In The Sun, Hash Pipe, Photograph. Of the energetic set, those songs were the ones that stood out as the best to me, but to be honest there wasn’t a weak point in it.
Even more so, it was clear that Weezer was having a blast. Normally the drummer, Pat Wilson was up front playing the guitar the whole set while someone else sat back on drums. Rivers didn’t play any instruments at all for the first five songs or so and made the most of the freedoms that a wireless microphone affords a singer. He spent a lot of time off the stage; some of it was spent up against the barricades in front of the audience, some in a little window overlooking the stage, and at one point he was hanging out with the fans in a balcony. Known to be a bit of a recluse, Rivers appeared to be having a blast getting out and hanging with the people who admire him.
In between songs, Rivers would often triumphantly yell out the year and sometimes album that the next song was from. We were on a Weezer time machine going traveling back to the time that everyone was there to remember. It was a great journey though. They ended their first half with one of the few non-radio tracks, Falling For You from the 1996 Pinkerton release that would be played in full tomorrow night. They knew that their audience would love it though and they certainly did. The band managed to perform for nearly an hour playing only one cut from the 2 albums people acknowledge as great… and still put on a fantastic set. When they finally left the stage, I couldn’t help but wondering what I found so distasteful about their last 10 years of output.
In between sets, we were treated to a couple different things. First we got a 2 song “School of Rock” set. Some 12-17 year olds (guessing their ages) from Chicago’s North Suburbs came out and played two Weezer covers from Pinkerton. One of them was El Scorcho. I don’t remember what the other one was. It was mildly entertaining.
Next, Karl (the manager of Weezer from the beginning, the one responsible for Weezer’s early and exceptional web presence and generally just a loved character by hardcore Weezer fans) came out and did a slideshow of the bands early history. We got to see pictures of “the garage” (of In The Garage fame), “the kitchen” (of Kitchen Tapes fame), posters from early shows, reviews from those shows that panned the band of “the most blatant Nirvana ripoff of the group” and how the cover of the Blue Album came to be. If there is anyone more awkward on stage than Rivers, it is Karl, and while I found a lot of value in the slideshow, it was clear it dragged out a bit for many of the people around me.
Eventually, Karl wrapped up and a few more minutes later (a few more than seemed reasonable), the lights went down. This was the moment people had been waiting years for. The excitement in the air was palpable, as was the smell of marijuana from someone near me who I never identified.
Not much can be written about the second half of the show. Weezer performed the Blue Album straight through from start to end without any of the hamming it up or shenanigans that brought so much to the first half of their set. They performed all 10 songs pretty much like they sounded on the album, and they rocked them hard. There was no banter in between songs. There was no hamming up the performance. And the audience ate it up in a way I have never seen an audience eat up a show before. It was absolutely magical. By the time Only In Dreams had ended, my voice was dead, I was exhausted and I was in awe. I had just gotten everything that I could have asked from a Weezer show and even better, I knew I was going to get an encore the next night.
Part 4 – Night 2: Pinkerton
The next night, not having the time or weather constraints that we did the previous day, we got to the Aragon around 5:30, an hour before doors opened and I found free parking. We were probably about 100 people back in the line and it was cold outside. We bundled up heavily, and ran our excess clothes to the car right before the doors opened. The plan was executed flawlessly. Also, we met some nice people in line.
When the doors opened, we hurried in, took a quick bathroom break, and took our spot, nearly in the dead center about 10 people back. There was a divider/aisle down the middle that went about 20 feet into the audience and there was only 1 person between me and the divider. These people were also nice. Overall, I felt more prepared and was in a better spot than the previous night. We were surrounded by better people who were bigger Weezer fans. This was going to be another great show.
We tolerated the opening band again, which was made more amusing when we found out we were standing next to the cousin of someone in that opening band. After their set, their drummer threw his sticks and the cousin caught them and seemed pretty psyched about it. Apparently he didn’t have a relationship with his cousin where he could just ask for one after the show.
Weezer came out around the same time and opened with the same song. They varied the set pretty heavily from there, and for the better. We got Greatest Man That Ever Lived which I consider to be a strong contender for the greatest 21st century Weezer song. We got Dope Nose instead of Keep Fishin. We got 1994-1996 B-sides: You Gave Your Love To Me Soflty, Susanne, and Jamie. Jamie is potentially my favorite non-album Weezer track of all time. They closed the opening set with Only In Dreams. Sure, I heard it last night but no one was complaining about hearing it again. It was a better set selection than the first night’s shows.
Rivers turned down his craziness just a notch during the set as well, though he did come into the audience a bit. In fact, I got a hand on him as he journeyed down the divider and stopped to sing right next to us, towering on a bench over us. It was a fantastic moment. In general though it was just good Weezer music.
In between sets, we got more School of Rock (this time playing Surfwax America and Say It Ain’t So) and more Karl. We got to see Rolling Stone’s ranking of Pinkerton as the 2nd worst album of 1996, some of Karl’s crazy drawings from the recording sessions and a few pictures that Spike Lee took of the Pinkerton recording sessions. We heard about the scrapped Songs From The Black Hole album and saw some more album posters. We learned about the passing of Weezer mega-fans Mikel and Carli. This presentation probably wasn’t any more interesting than last nights, but I was surrounded by people who cared more so it seemed more enjoyable to me.
Just like the previous night, when Weezer showed up to play Pinkerton, they were all business. No banter, no nonsense. The only slight variance from this formula is when Rivers left one El Scorcho chorus to the audience. Other than that, it was pure Pinkerton, start to finish. The tone of this show was different then the one from the night before, but thats to be expecte as the tone of Pinkerton is completely different than the tone of the Blue Album. Many would say that’s why it was received so poorly when it was released.
The audience ate it up none the less though, and perhaps even more so. While the Blue Album is one that people love as a fantastic geeky fun album, Pinkerton is one that I think a lot of people have a deeper emotional tie to. The different types of appreciation resulted in a different type of show. It was a show that I enjoyed even more than the first night, though for the last song of the show, there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect between Rivers and the audience.
The last song on Pinkerton, Butterfly, was by far the slowest of any played on either of the two nights. For instrumentation, it was just Rivers on the acoustic guitar and Karl playing drums (which I believe he did on the album as well). This low profile setup led to an opportunity for singalong that it was evident on his face that Rivers wasn’t to keen on the idea. 15 years after writing an emotionally open album and being almost universally critically destroyed for it, it almost seemed like he was still uncomfortable playing some of the material. I wouldn’t say Rivers looked upset, but he at least seemed conflicted.
Part 5 – Conclusion
What do you do when you release five albums in a row (fairly rapid succession, none the less) that the majority of your original fans don’t really like that much? I think that Rivers gets a bit bummed out about this. These complete album tours are a kind of weird thing for a band like this. There are bands like the Pixies (who toured Doolittle) who haven’t released a new album in 15+ years who have no credibility to lose by touring their most popular work. There are bands like Built to Spill (who toured Perfect From Now On) and Bell & Sebastian (who toured If You Are Feeling Sinister), both bands who’s entire body of work is held in pretty high regard. Then there’s Weezer. Still making music, but making music that their original fans are often openly hostile to, and catering to these fans by playing their oldest work. It is a pretty odd situation, and during that performance of Butterfly, I couldn’t help but think that Rivers knew this and it weighed on him a bit.
And even knowing this, Rivers led his band to putting on two of the most enjoyable songs I have ever been to. I think this is because Rivers is aware of the unique strengths of his different eras of songs. From Maladroit to present, Rivers has been writing what is at its best parts just been fun, goofy rock music. His attitude during the first halves of these shows mirrored the spirit of these songs. For the Blue Album and Pinkerton, Rivers was writing songs at a more formative and emotional part of his life and when he played The Blue Album and Pinkerton live, he knew that the power was simply in the songs themselves and he let them shine in all their glory. Say what you will about his most recent work, but that kind of self-awareness of what your songs need is something to be admired.
After these two shows, I had no trouble remembering why for a long time I considered Weezer to be my favorite band. Though I wouldn’t drive 5 hours to do so, I would not hesitate to pay to see Weezer again. And I’ll keep buying (and even being excited about) these perpetually disappointing CDs. Its all about the memories, after all.
Part 6 – More Media
One of the more noticeable stage props. (There was also a trampoline that was only used once each night)
Rivers pretending to rock a presumably non-functioning organ from the balcony, surrounded by fans during the first half of the first night’s set.
Rivers out in the crowd with his people.
I touched him sometime between these two photographs
And finally for some comic relief, some kids playing Surfwax America.
If you got to the end of this, I thank you for you time.