Ryan Smith tried to reach Paul Westerberg regarding Friday's big tribute to the Replacements at First Avenue, but it wasn't an invitation. As one club staffer put it, "Prince would be more likely to show up" than the guy who led Minneapolis' most legendary band.
No, Smith simply wanted to learn the odd guitar tuning in a certain Replacements B-side from the "Pleased to Meet Me" sessions. He and his bandmates in the Melismatics -- who will serve as the house band for Friday's show -- rehearsed the rare track Sunday afternoon at their home in east St. Paul.
"It's such an obscure song, there are no YouTube clips to look up or anything for reference," Smith complained.
Chances are pretty good Westerberg himself doesn't remember how to play that rare track or many others on tap for Friday night, which partly explains why these tributes have become one of the most beloved -- and challenging -- annual gigs in town.
Last year, Smith and his wife/bandmate Kathie "Pony" Hixon-Smith had to learn the 18 tracks from the Replacements' scrappy, whirlwind 1981 debut, "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash." Said Hixon-Smith, "Those were just crazy songs, with no real rhyme or reason to a lot of the guitar parts or song structure."
This year's focus, the 1987 album "Pleased to Meet Me," presented a new challenge: "These songs are a lot more logical songwriting-wise and really very sophisticated," he said, "but they're disguised to not seem so sophisticated."
Planning for the fifth Replacements tribute started in the office at First Ave, pretty much right after last year's ended.
With "Pleased to Meet Me" being the obvious choice for this year's centerpiece, given its 25th anniversary -- next year's album has already been penciled in on a similar basis -- the club's chief talent booker, Sonia Grover, sat down to plan the night with the show's host, David Campbell, a DJ from 89.3 the Current and one of the participating musicians. They line up all the bands and songwriters who play four- or five-song tribute sets before the main set, drawing on the Replacements' other records. They also brainstorm which local musicians might sing certain songs.
"Not just anybody can sing a song as special as 'Can't Hardly Wait,'" said Grover, referring to "Pleased to Meet Me's" closing track. "We put a lot of thought and effort into it, probably more than we have to, but that's just because we're such big fans of the [Replacements] ourselves."
To maintain the element of surprise -- and Grover's good will -- we're not reporting which singers rehearsed which songs last weekend, but we can at least tell you who was there.
Curtiss A showed up before our arrival and dropped off cookies for everyone (insert raised eyebrow here). Lucy Michelle, who was born the year "Pleased to Meet Me" came out, rehearsed a song she didn't even know a month ago. ("But when I heard it, it made a lot of sense why they asked me," she said.) John Swardson of the gritty garage-rock band Get Gone had done his particular song many times before, but as he learned last year -- when he joined the house band to fill a last-minute hole -- winging a Replacements song is not so easy. Heck, the Replacements themselves proved that on many an off night.
"I actually got to rehearse my part this year, so hopefully that's a good thing," Swardson smirked.
Who wasn't at rehearsals might be just as noteworthy. When one song reached a lull, Smith interjected, "That's where the sax will go." At least one singer won't be able to rehearse until Friday's soundcheck. Also, the members of Pink Mink are conducting rehearsals of their own for a special set they plan to record.
This is the first year all four members of the Melismatics are working as the house band. Previous years involved veteran guitar wiz Terry Eason and different rhythm sections. Eason had to bow out of the gig this year. "We miss Terry a lot, but this works well, too, because we're already a band," Ryan said.
Unlike many of the musicians performing sets around the "Pleased to Meet Me" portion of Friday's show -- including Story of the Sea, Pink Mink, Red Daughters and Mad Ripple Hootenanny leader Jim Walsh -- the Melismatics aren't fanatical Replacements fans (although they didn't tell that to the guy in St. Joseph, Mo., who hired them to play a well-paying 'Mats set for his birthday). They're just a solid, versatile band that works well with others.
"It's always a fun challenge learning these songs," Smith said. "We probably have as great an appreciation for them now as anyone else."
As for that guitar tuning, Smith eventually figured it out on his own. Maybe he can relay it to Westerberg, should the need ever arise.
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