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I Saw Ween
From the sides of the stage at the Docks concert hall in Toronto, the fog machines are turned on a good fifteen minutes before the lights dim. As soon as the first burst of vaporized liquid wafts into the crowd, the cheering crescendos and reverberates from the walls within the narrow venue, a staple of the Toronto music scene but by no means a pleasant place to see a show: The venue is isolated, away from both downtown and ample parking, and offers the most mediocre of acoustics. It’s another five minutes before the stage is immersed in enough artificial smoke to obscure the drum set from the crowd, but by then it's unclear what percentage of the haze is the product of hastily rolled joints. Amidst a nebula of pot smoke and dry ice, Ween takes the stage in front of a crowd of over 3,000.
Ween’s live show does not call for advanced pyrotechnics or synchronized video shows. Great White and two hundred New Jersey mutants ruined that for the rest of us four years ago. Tonight’s performance, like the others on the tour, is over 120 minutes of deafening sound produced by one of the leading quintets of the alternative rock scene. Ween has been doing this for over twenty years now, and to those that make up the sold-out crowd, it is clearly not getting old.
Formed during 8th grade typing class in 1984, Ween centers around Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, a duo who affectionately go by the monikers of Gene and Dean Ween, respectively. During the next decade, the Ween brothers traveled across the world, performing decidedly off-beat music with nothing more than drum and bass tracks on a pre-recorded cassette-tape. Imagine if They Might Be Giants flunked out of high school and got into inhalants and acid. Understandably, this did not go over very well with the fading hair metal scene, nor with the snowballing grunge fad of the West-Coast. But with consistent touring and the release of several records on Twin Tone and Elektra records, Ween eventually developed a cult following by the mid '90s, appearing in feature length films and and an episode of Beavis and Butthead. During the last several years, Ween has spawned from an adolescent duo singing cock-jokes in front of bewildered Dutch crowds of merely a dozen to it’s latest incarnation: a five piece rock band performing sold out shows across the world. This night’s show is at The Docks, the Ween brothers are 23 years older, and yeah, they totally kept the cock jokes. Their audiences are no longer made up of high school buddies but seasoned fans who will make cross country treks to see their favorite band.
It had only been ten minutes since I made it through the doors at The Docks, and I have already spotted a handful of faces present at last night’s three-and-a-half-hour show in Cleveland, Ohio, a three hundred mile excursion that questioned my ’95 Eagle Summit as well as my concept of taste. A few days before Halloween, I waded through the crowd of fat bearded men reeking of B-grade bud and $6 Molson in my “ironic” cat-costume. “I’m a dude, but, you know, I’m a cat. Guys don’t dress like cats.” The joke was neither comprehended nor appreciated as intended, but Ween fans took to it nonetheless. “Make way for the cat, far out.” Ween fans possess accepting passivity of Dead Heads, but thankfully lack the stench. Maybe not the best compromise, but good enough.
James Martino, a 37-year-old Toronto native, has made this night his fourth consecutive hometown Ween show, and sixth altogether. As if the two-hour set in Toronto isn’t enough this year, Martino has already purchased tickets to see the band perform two nights in a row at a New York City club this winter. “They really have to be seen to believed,” says Martino, who must suffer from astigmatism. I should talk. This is night two of my own Weenapalooza and finances and a tie-rod are the only things keeping me from tomorrow’s show in Detroit.
Another Canadian citizen, Kevin Scromedia, made the recent Toronto show his 7th Ween performance since first catching them three times on their 2001 tour. A die-hard fan to the utmost regard, Scromedia not only flew in from British Columbia for the show, but planned his honeymoon around the show at the Docks. “My wife and I married at the end of August and we had planed to stop in Toronto on our way to Italy,” said Scromedia. “She used to live there and she wanted to show me around to all her favorite old haunts. The stopover didn't work out at the beginning of September, so I said we'd go another weekend. Once I found out Ween's Toronto tour date, I worked our trip around the concert!”
While tonight’s show will feature a number of new songs off the recently-released La Cucaracha, fans that came far and wide are hoping for the old hits: “You Fucked Up,” “Waving My Dick in the Wind,” or perhaps even “Piss Up A Rope,” a decade old song that Dean and Gene originally performed with a full fledged Nashville country band for 1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats, a flawless dig at classic country with cameos with Presley and Perkins vets. Ween’s titles and subject matter are in many cases as laughable as their name itself, but the music is far from funny. Ween’s sound is hard to pinpoint, with each album differing in flow and production, but even with an array of genre parodies from disc to disc, the music is more imposing than it is ironic. And above all, Ween fucking rock, in a completely authentic, un-ironic way.
While Ween’s tours are often sporadic and limited in region, this year they are traveling the better part of North America in support of La Cucaracha, their 9th studio album. In a recent interview with the Onion, Dean Ween admitted that the studio sessions for the new album yielded 50 potential songs, which the band narrowed down to a dozen. “It’s quantity, not quality,” laughed Melchiondo. “If you write 50 songs, you’re bound to write at least a dozen good ones.”
With La Cucaracha only having been available for a week, fans in Cleveland and Toronto alike still sang along with the new songs. Both “Fiesta,” an upbeat festive instrumental and “Object,” a slow-tempoed minor ballad about exploiting others (“Paste you across my body / You’re just an object to me”), were performed this tour, to a crowd of thousands that already knew each word and note. The thirteen songs off La Cucaracha range in style from the faux-reggae “The Fruit Man” to the abrasive “My Own Bare Hands,” an aggressive rock song in the vein of Steve Albini’s venerable Shellac that features guitarist Dean Ween singing lead vocals: “She's gonna be my cock professor, studying my dick / She's gonna get a master's degree in fuckin me.”
Immaturity aside, Ween’s music has vastly developed from the low-fi home-recordings of the ‘90s Pure Guava and The Pod to what is available today. Recorded in a moldy, 200-year old farmhouse, the atmosphere surrounding the La Cucaracha sessions miraculously yielded a delectable and bright album, especially in comparison to the drugged-out 2002 release Quebec. Despite the tuberculosis developed as result of the new album’s harsh studio conditions, Melchiondo still considers La Cucaracha Ween’s “Party record, unlike [Quebec] which was more of a Jonestown party vibe.”
As Martino prepares for his two nights of Ween in Manhattan, he reflects on performances that even after eight and nine times are still inspiring. “As impossible as it may seem, I really do believe they continue to improve as a live band every time I see them, which just leaves me wanting more,” says Martino.
Despite getting four shows under his belt by the year’s end, Martino hasn’t had enough. “They are the only band around today that if I had the means and the time, I would follow them on tour. I wish there were more bands like Ween.”
So do I. And Cheap Trick. I fucking love Cheap Trick.
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