2:07 PM CDT, September 16, 2013
Charlie Phelps wore a baseball cap, a green fleece North Face pullover and sensible eyewear. A 55-year-old software engineer who lives outside Minneapolis, he carried a studious, patient air. He seemed a portrait of responsibility and thoughtfulness, of adulthood itself. So much so that it was very hard to imagine Phelps a quarter century earlier, as a devoted fan of the cheerfully ramshackle indie rock legends the Replacements. It was tough to picture him committed to a band so infamously unreliable — though he swore that he was.
Indeed, Sunday night in Humboldt Park, it was even harder to reconcile that image of the young Phelps with the father who flew here for Riot Fest, dragging along his 18-year-old son to see the reunited Replacements.
"My son has school on Monday," Phelps said, standing in the muddy field, waiting for the band to go on. "We're getting on a plane at six in the morning so he can make it back in time for class. I tried explaining the Replacements and their importance, but I'm not that sure he cares. I don't think he's that impressed."
His son, Duncan, stood alongside, looking bored.
"I sat him down and we watched a documentary about the band," Phelps said. "I tried explaining that they were the third best band from Minnesota, just after Prince and Dylan. But I'm not sure it stuck, you know?"
"You told me the Replacements don't take themselves seriously or something?" Duncan said.
"Right, good," his father said, proud. "They don't."
There is a moment in the history of many great rock bands when, long after the band is finished and its fans have moved on, fond, youthful memories of irresponsibility and urgency have a run-in with the more practical. And both sides brace for the awkwardness of the reunion. For the once perpetually ironic, hopelessly self-defeating Replacements, the Holden Caulfields of '80s college rock, that moment has reared its head. Standing at the edge of a baseball infield across from the stage, Sean Hughes, who identified himself as a fortysomething Chicago IT director, said not everyone understands the bond between the Replacements and fans: "I told my wife why I was going to Riot Fest. She said 'Didn't they do the theme from "Friends"?'"
His friends groaned, cringing at the thought of mistaking the lightweight Rembrandts for the Replacements.
Actually, Sunday's show — the second of three Replacements reunion concerts; the first was in Toronto, the next is in Denver — was particularly relevant for Chicago fans, the city being the site of the band's onstage breakup during a concert in Grant Park on July 4, 1991. "We were there when they broke up and now we're here seeing them again," said Terry Walsh, a 42-year-old Chicago salesman, gesturing at his friend Tom Burns, a 42-year old Chicago attorney. "Seeing it come full circle, that's what this is about for us."
Walsh stood on a tarp placed on the muddy ground. A younger Riot Fest attendee sat nearby in the mud. Walsh wore an expensive-looking navy blue Barbour weekend coat. The younger guy wore a torn T-shirt.
As the sky went from the color of lint to black, it became even more obvious who was there mainly to see the Replacements and who was roughly 20 years old and could care less. The Replacements fans wore bright Patagonia and carried umbrellas. The twentysomethings wore garbage bags torn into rain ponchos.
Bobby Hall, a 55-year-old music-company marketing guy who flew in from Los Angeles for the show, watched a steady stream of Millennials file past, leaving early, and, in his amazed surfer voice, said: "The median age of this crowd is probably a few decades younger than the median age of the people on stage."
It would have been disingenuous for him to judge, considering how associated the Replacements once were with snotty youthful indifference and uncertainty. In fact, many of the older fans themselves retained a cautious, ambivalent enthusiasm about the reunion. Joanna Frank, 39, an interior designer from Queens, N.Y., came with her husband, "who wasn't really sure if we should even go." Her husband, David Frank, a sociologist, said: "I guess that's because they were my favorite band. I don't want to taint the memories."
"We have a soft spot in our hearts for them," Joanna said, "so why ruin that?"
Later, as the band played, some of these same people could be seen wide-eyed, mouthing lyrics that have grown more poignant with age: "How old are you?/ How young am I?/ Let's count the rings around my eyes."
Near the end of the set, when there was some confusion about whether the band had finished or were waiting to perform an encore, Will Byington, standing with Hughes, said loudly: "Did they break up again?"
They did not.
As the band raced through two more songs, a fortysomething man in an L.L. Bean fleece could be seen grinning deliriously, chin raised at the stage, watching intently, clapping loudly, bopping along to the music.
He turned to the woman beside him and, cupping his hands around his mouth, hollered:
The moment the band finished — the very moment the rain returned, promoting a shout from the crowd: "God is a Replacements fan!" — a reporter attempted to talk to the "Goosebumps!" man. But the guy, gathering his backpack and checking his watch, leaned in and apologized: "Sorry! Babysitter waiting!"
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