Weezer Live at Riot Fest
Congress Theater- Chicago, IL
October 9, 2011
When Weezer emerged in the mid-1990's they didn't come off as rock stars but something far more prevailing; peers who could magically express my excitement and heartbreak in endearing four-minute songs which appeared to be hailed from dozens of genres encompassing forty years of rock music. I didn't know it at the time but Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo grew up listening to pop music, 80's hard rock and eventually the alternative music that defined the 1990's. The world of rock n' roll is full of people who appear to be regular every day people, but there was something truly unique about Weezer, they were geeks who somehow penetrated the too-cool-for-school façade of rock n' roll and made it by being true to themselves. Cuomo and his band mates always seemed like your Jimmy Stewart/Tom Hanks everyman that wasn't just believable but authentic.
Weezer continues to create great music and each record has its own unique imprint even as they venture into independent waters with their latest album Hurley released in 2010, along with Death To False Metal which covers more than a decade of outtakes and a two disc special edition of Pinkerton an album that elicits such a zealous response from its listeners. It is often pointed to as one of the defining works of the emo movement. Weezer performed the album in its entirety earlier this year at the Aragon and for their return to Riot Fest, they let the fans vote to determine if they would perform Pinkerton to Weezer aka The Blue Album for its encore performance. The Blue Album won out and as Urge Overkill performed their opening set, they delivered a spot-on and cerebral set encompassing their entire career to a crowd that couldn't have cared less. In an odd display of insolence, most of the twenty-something crowd held their hands together creating a "W" sign. Urge Overkill deserved better but the fans inside the Congress were itching for Weezer to take the stage.
When Weezer did appear, Cuomo spoke to the crowd about the passing of former bassist Mikey Welsh who had eerily died earlier in the day in a Chicago hotel room. Welsh was part of the band when they found their groove again around 2000. Cuomo spoke highly of him and then gave the Chicago crowd nearly a dozen greatest hits. Since the band would be performing their 1994 Weezer album in its entirety, they began the show with a selection of songs before performing the aforementioned classic top-to-bottom to close the show out. Opening with "Troublemaker" the band delivered a nostalgic yet completely driven set of high energy rock n' roll that the young crowd ate up with delight. Cuomo roamed from one side of the stage to the next without a guitar as the band brought urgency with the 2008 single. "El Scorcho" was next and based on the crowd's reaction and the sing-a-long chorus I'm amazed this wasn't a bigger song when it was released back in 1996 and I'm surprised at myself that I dismissed the song and album and it took a legion of their fans to make it a cult classic. I'm further surprised that Pinkerton didn't win in the voting for this Riot Fest performance based on the fanatical reaction the crowd gave the band. "Hash Pipe", "Perfect Situation" and "Beverly Hills" showcase their inherent abilities to come up with a killer hook and chorus. The crowd knew every word, sung their hearts out and even crowd surfed. "Islands in the Sun" found Cuomo perform it alone on an electric guitar and if you closed your eyes, you could be taken away to any time in the history of the rock era or to a late night commercial where it's part of Time Life's 1950's collection (this is a compliment). What it showcases is Cuomo's ability to write truly timeless songs.
I last saw Weezer in 2008 when they were in support of Weezer aka The Red Album at the Allstate Arena. That was an eye opening evening. Despite not being sold-out, I couldn't deny the influence the band has made on a whole series of fans who weren't even born when Purple Rain and Born in the USA ruled the pop landscape and who were in primary school when The Blue Album was released. However, Cuomo looked tired, had a moustache and didn't even sing lead on many of the band's classics. Bassist Scott Shriner and drummer Patrick Wilson took over lead duties as Cuomo roamed the stage. I never wrote about that show due to time constraints but I should have. Their connection with their fans was undeniable and inside the Congress Theater for the closing night of Riot Fest, it was no different and it left the festival on a high note. This time through, Weezer is a bit different. The band has recruited drummer Josh Freese and Pat Wilson has taken over rhythm guitar allowing Cuomo to roam the stage more freely and bring the show to the fans. More importantly, he appears to have rededicated himself to his classic catalog taking on lead vocal duties while the ever impressive backing group flourishes behind his leadership.
Another high point of the Riot Fest set was the dreamy claptastic "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" (co-written and produced by Butch Walker) from their 2009 album Raditude. This is an album that deserved more promotion and a full tour to show off the heartfelt songs and brilliant production paired with those songs. Despite having an incredibly high percentage of their hits, the band threw in a few surprises including the rarely performed "I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams" from the 1990's. It appears on the new deluxe edition of Pinkerton and was debuted as a live performance in January of this year. Cuomo's lyrics were full of raw passion. It made me wonder if he had chosen to perform this for the fans or if there was a part of him that needed to express the emotions from this underground classic. Either way, the performance was beaming with the band delivering a knock out performance. While Weezer is performing several festivals and even has a cruise lined up in January (which Cuomo sang about briefly in a winking manner), one hoped they continue to tour and unearth more of these could have and should have been classics as it shows there's more to them than the tongue-in-cheek videos.
After a short ten-minute break the band returned to perform The Blue Album in it's entirely with Pat Wilson behind the kit. After the commercial failure of Pinkerton Weezer feel out of the mainstream's consciousness but there were a group of fans on the internet who bonded over the loneliness and anxiety these records echoed. They single handedly kept the band's music alive and it seeped into our consciousness over time. When they reemerged at the turn of the century, both of their albums attained a certain cult status and judging by the vocal, physical and spiritual response within the walls of the Congress, Weezer has much to be thankful for. Performing The Blue Album top-to-bottom was a unique experience since the album is front loaded with encore ready songs but this didn't stop each and every one of the ten songs to capture the audience's attention. "Surf Wax America", "In the Garage" and "No One Else" received roars as vociferous as "Say It Isn't So", "Undone – The Sweater Song" and "Buddy Holly". Cuomo's lyrics are so emotionally bare a whole generation of fans after the 1990's has latched onto these songs. He wears the battle scars prominently so we don't have to. I'm not sure when he wrote these songs if they heal the heart faster or elongate the moping. Back in 1995, I repeatedly played "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here" because it spoke to my own broken heart. Then somewhere along the line I forgot the song until a few years ago. The raw and distorted anthem of loneliness pierced the Chicago crowd with veracity and each of the 3,500 in attendance could conjure up memories of when someone took a sledgehammer to their heart and they lost themselves in this anthem as a way to heal themselves. The song went fifteen years without being performed until the Memories tour and here's to hoping they don't retire it again any time soon.
There is a longing and wistfulness to Rivers Cuomo's lyrics. They sound like California dreams but are often winter nightmares where the pain within is too much to bear and it feels like January eternally. When "Only in Dreams" closed out the show (and Riot Fest as well), a flurry of females began to surf the crowd and it felt as if one was awakening from a deep sleep where there dreams haunted our psyche, but now that we're aware we are more aware of what we have to do to move forward. Weezer is at their best when they mine their eclectic tastes and aim for world domination. The live in the lines between hard rock, alternative, punk and emo capturing the innocence of each genre while infusing the music with their own brand of humor and heartbreak. As the five-day Riot Fest came to a close, Weezer had the intense and celebrated set of the festival. It was a perfect marriage of the band, their fans and the venue coming together to create an unforgettable evening that next's years festival closer will be tough to live up to.
The Weezer fans don't just know the hits, but the album cuts inside and out proving to everyone that you don't have to play stadiums to be stadium conquering monsters. Watching their Riot Fest performance it became evident that Weezer is a band and not a brand. The truth is, with the right promoter and enough manipulation you can sell out a stadium but can you make those in attendance love your music? Inside the Congress Theater there was more love and affection on display for Weezer than most stadium bands could ever dream of mustering up and this in itself is their greatest triumph, not only did they get people to buy their music, but they listened to each and every song closely.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Weezer Live at Riot Fest