Jersey Boys

Let's talk live recordings and audiophiles. While they may be semi-loathe to admit it, most genuinely possessed music fans, even including those with audiophile leanings, have live stuff or unreleased studio recordings that have been passed down to them via cassette tapes, MP3s, or CDs. After you buy everything that's been legally released and widely available, your curiosity naturally turns to finding what else is out there. And no matter what kind of music you like, there are a lot of killer bootlegs out there. On a trip several years ago to the Barcelona Jazz Festival, where the intellectual property laws are somewhat . . . ahem . . . looser, there was a bricks'n'mortar store selling unauthorized CD sets of USA performances by American jazz artists. Live recordings often hold up a cracked mirror to the more polished studio records. They are an unvarnished look into whether a performer can actually bring it live.

The sound dilemma that exists with live recordings is fundamental, however. To understate the painfully obvious, most were not recorded under optimal circumstances. Even the stolen studio stuff and I'm primarily thinking of the mass of Beatles unofficial releases here—which are often said to be "dubbed off" as if that lessens the crime—is not up to snuff sonically. Again, cassettes or even DATs are the usual culprits. In most cases the fidelity issues must be weighed against the value of the content. Depending on your tolerance for noise, many can be unlistenable.

Which brings me to The Replacements For Sale: Live at Maxwell's 1986, which I just received and have been listening to on double vinyl. As longtime Stereophile readers know, I am a `Mats loyalist in the extreme. They rose and fell during my early years as a music writer, back when I had the energy to stay out `til 4 am on a Monday night, at times even traveling to follow their intermittent but wonderful tours. As rock bands go, I still don't know of one better. For a number of years, they were the highest-energy, most-influential rock band on the planet. While their recent Tommy Stinson-Paul Westerberg, watered-down reunion shows were fun, they are just tame echoes of the original band in action. All `Mats fans have their store of cherished memories of seeing the insanity live.

The Maxwell's album is produced by an old friend, Bob Mehr, whose excellent book, Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements, is likely to be the standard account of the band's ragtag journey for many years to come. The recording at Maxwell's, the venerable Hoboken, NJ venue that closed in 2013, was set up and supervised by NYC-based Effanel Music, the same multi-track, mobile recorders who have recorded U2, Susanna Baca and Pat Metheny among others. The Replacement's 1986 tour came just after their hilarious appearance on Saturday Night Live (which earned them a lifetime ban from SNL producer Lorne Michaels) and just before guitarist Bob Stinson was forced out of the band for continued substance abuse. Concerns about whether the band could make a good live recording when they knew they were being recorded evaporated when they hit the stage. As this recording documents, the foursome, who were supremely skilled at self-sabotage, were in a particularly happy, chop-chop mode that night. Their never-again-equaled alchemy of cry 'n' whisper, heart-on-sleeve losers crossed with snarling jerks has never before been captured at such a perfect simmer. From the notes we know that the venue was packed and crazy hot inside despite the fact that they show had never been advertised. Bob took the stage wearing nothing but a dark trench coat, floppy socks and dress shoes.

Musically, this is prime live `Mats. "Unsatisfied," "Can't Hardly Wait," "Hold My Life," and their always raucous and tongue-firmly-in-cheek cover of the Kiss standard, "Black Diamond," are all played tight, fast and with glorious abandon. Paul Westerberg's singing is impassioned and Bob Stinson's guitar work was rarely ever better. For all those who were once disappointed by a show by this supposedly great band, this is what all the fuss was about.

In a quick email exchange with Bob Mehr, I got the lowdown on the history of the tapes. They were properly stored all these years, or as Mehr says "as long as anyone can remember," at the Warner Bros. Records vaults in California. The band was signed at the time to Sire Records, which was part of WBR. The mix heard on this record was done in 2007 at Capitol Studios in Hollywood by Brian Kehew and Bill Inglot. Additional editing was done in 2017 and Howie Weinberg mastered the final product. As to why it never came out in the first place, Mehr says Bob Stinson leaving the band, as well as the remaining trio starting work on a new studio record that became Pleased To Meet Me, were the biggest factors. Vaguely intended as a promotional tool, the Maxwell's recording was also done without a firm plan for its release.

While it's easily the best Replacements live recording ever—better than any previous "unofficial" bootleg—it still has sonic shortcomings. Live recordings, even those that are done professionally, usually end up either being all low-end rumble or all high-end squeak and this one leans towards the latter. Mid and high frequencies are clear and bright—too bright in spots. Also Tommy Stinson's bass is very low in the mix even at high volume. But again, if you've invested in Mats live bootlegs that are sonic disasters, or are just a perpetually fanatic `Mats fan, this is the grail you have been seeking.

garysi13's picture

I understand your position as I am also one of those loyal 'Mats fans. Still feel lucky to have seen them on a number of their NYC/NJ runs. I still get a laugh when I think about how a pissed Jon Bon Jovi sent a letter to Musician Magazine, complaining about the 'Mats getting a higher listing as best band of the 80's(could there ever had been any doubt?). Sure the sound is far from perfect, but this is The Replacements here, a band known to do an entire show of covers, or the time they were so drunk they could barely play. One thing I would have liked to see included was their version of "Another Girl, Another Planet"(though it is available on the collection All for Nothing. I didn't go to the reunion shows because there could be no way to roll back time. I like to let them live in that time and place.

Glotz's picture

It's good to see Stereophile covering music that may not sound well. I think of JGH and the tenet that the best performances suck SQ-wise. I'll still get this one.

I went to the reunion tour... it was just glad to see them alive in one place. RIP BOB!!