Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo are known respectively as Gene and Dean Ween – silly monikers for serious musicians who have navigated their career from a position below the radar, subverting and mimicking all manner of rock music. To say that Ween is a band that subverts pop music is to miss the point somewhat, for this is a band that basically clubs the pop-song over the head, dragging it, by the ear, through several different styles. Ween albums straddle genres – individual tracks can flit from alternative folk to progressive-rock send-up. There has been po-faced country and psychedelic pop – and even, as heard live on stage as part of this performance, wry references to slick soul (Object).
In support of La Cucaracha, the band’s tenth full-length studio album, there are tracks from that new record that threaten to tear down the walls (Woman And Man and With My Own Bare Hands suggesting a meeting between Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention). And there were plenty of fan-favourites from the older albums, Don’t Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy), from 1993’s semi-breakthrough Pure Guava, saw most of the audience chanting the final a Capella chorus in unison with the band. 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese provided highlights Baby Bitch and Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down).
The expressive, chameleon-like vocals of Gene Ween were one thing to hold on to, technically impressive as well as being full of sardonic humour. But Dean Ween’s explosive guitar work carried the set, charging across two and a half hours, the audience hanging on to the back of the songs – whipped away in to the world of Ween.
Returning for a four-song encore, the band blasted out the opening La Cucaracha instrumental, Fiesta, before moving to 1996’s 12 Golden Country Greats for Mister Richard Smoker. And then Ween closed one of the best shows I’ve ever had the pleasure to be part of with a sublime reading of Buenos Tardes Amigo (from Chocolate and Cheese).
Alright, so that was pretty much it – as I saw and heard it on the night; that review – those paragraphs above this one that you’re reading right now – ran in the Wellington newspaper a couple of days after the gig.
I’ve reviewed hundreds of shows now – maybe getting in on a thousand or so, just as well I don’t count actually. But of all the shows I’ve written up it’s the Ween one I think about most often. You see whenever I listen to Ween, which is not all that often these days, but they’re a firm favourite – a band I’ll always return to – I am instantly transported to that gig. Maybe it helps that La Cucaracha is my favourite album, the one I play the most, the one that – I reckon – hangs the best together as a complete album. Oh yeah, it’s completely bonkers, but then it’s Ween! What are you expecting!?
Push Th’ Little Daisies was my introduction to this band and I hated it – but I liked the fact I hated it; it intrigued me, I didn’t hate it in the way you can hate pop music and instantly not worry about it. You dismiss it, discard it, you’re done with it. Well, Ween lingered. The smell of their songs – all beer cans and bong resin – permeated. And as I listened to more of their music I grew to love almost all of it (including Push Th’ Little Daisies).
Anyone writing Ween off as a bunch of slacker stoners writing silly little tossed off half-ideas has never seen this band pull of flawless recreations of Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher or Led Zeppelin’s All Of My Love or a dozen other covers; anyone writing Ween off as a bunch of slacker stoners hasn’t heard the fearsome sound of this band really hitting its stride, whisking songs along and away – and I reckon La Cucaracha might be the best example of them doing that. Certainly the best example of them doing that often.
And so whenever I listen to La Cucaracha – and it used to be the best “it’s 5pm, Friday; the working week is done” music, I’d always put it on the headphones as I stomped out the door for the final time that week – I am transported to this gig.
The San Fran Bath House at its packed best. Everyone in the audience a fan, or the terribly obliging girlfriend of a fan. And so much music. So much music being hiffed at the audience; just biffed from the stage, guitar solos that were better than any of the so-called “guitar heroes”, vocals that embraced country and crooning, soul and classic rock – genre-hopping isn’t even really it, more genre-absorbing and then genre-recreating, that’s what Ween did best.
I was in America last year on holiday when I read about Ween breaking up – calling hiatus. Sure, they’ll reform at some stage and it’ll probably be good but I was really sad to read this news. Really sad. I imagined that if anything I might, by total fluke of course, even see Ween again in America. Instead I ended up eulogising them, pushing out a blog post that referenced this gig and said all the obvious things about a band that turned off as many people as it turned on.
Because of all the bands I’ve seen – and, sure, I could have seen Ween in 1992 or 2000 or any other time but to me it felt right to see them when I did, their best new abum, the run of all their non-hits – I really would want to see Ween again. You could know that it would always be a different show.
Ween fans scare me a bit.
I’m no hardcore Ween fan. I just like what I hear, what I’ve heard, I’ve collected up most of their music, it started with the double live compilation, Paintin’ The Town Brown CD, bought because it was a bargain and the title made me laugh.
There are other favourite Ween albums, not just La Cucaracha. Man, I love Chocolate and Cheese and 12 Country Greats and The Mollusk – and The Pod and Pure Guava. I dig White Pepper and Quebec also. The Mollusk is actually my favourite Pink Floyd record, so there’s bonus points there.
And now – because (for now) it’s over – anytime I play anything by Ween I’m back at that sweaty Bath House gig; filing a review – trying to contextualise Ween for a newspaper audience, all the while buzzing out that the gig just keeps going and going and going, it’s the Eveready Battery Gig – and I usually walk out of anything that’s more than 80 minutes these days because – really – what’s the point in going on and on. But that’s – almost exactly – the point with Ween. It’s in the on and on that you find something special, a few stolen moments of magic and in and around that you can laugh at the audacity, the absurdity, the parody, but you’re also wowed by the talent, stunned. Blown away.
Well that’s how I remember it. It was The Best Gig Ever. (Naturally). And it’s only going to get better with time, forgiving them for not playing a few absolute favourites, remembering the songs that I don’t like as much as others but remembering that they really were great, that it all was wonderful.
Because to make a band like Ween you need time – you need commitment and energy and you need almost as much stupidity as you have talent. They had that formula right. They had it down. And then – 25 years of schlepping gear around the world to diminishing returns – they packed it in. The lead singer a drunk and needing help, needing a home away from suitcases and stages. But we’ll never get another band like Ween. We probably shouldn’t hope for one, but we’d never get it anyway.
Anyone who claims Ween an influence doesn’t get it right, doesn’t sound a damn thing like them, couldn’t – and of course shouldn’t.
Ween were worldbeatingly good. At least they were the night I saw ‘em. And I hear that – that night, that energy, that sound and feel and triumph of the bedsit losers – any time I listen to anything by them now.
If you’re leaving work at 5pm today, chuck Fiesta on the cans, or My Own Bare Hands or Woman and Man or the wonderful Your Party (replete with rip-off David Sanborn sax – actually played by David Sanborn, he does a wonderful impersonation of himself!) Or anything/everything from La Cucaracha. It’ll make your Friday night and your weekend great. A bit of Ween to see you right.