When the lights dimmed and four men–Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Josh Frese and Dave Minehan–took the stage to the music of West Side Story, it had been over 20 years since the Replacements had ever performed a show in New York City. Although the present group included just two of the original band members, their show Friday night at Forest Hills Stadium–a dingy, repurposed tennis stadium in Queens–was proof that sometimes, a band’s songs can outlast its own members.

Due to a strict 10 p.m. curfew, the band managed to cram their nearly-thirty song setlist into a fast-paced 100-minute set that included plenty of diehard-fan pleasing obscurities, crowd-pleasing covers, and just about every minor hit the band ever had during its run from the early ’80s to the early ’90s.

On stage, Paul Westerberg, dressed in red clown pants and a yellow blazer, appeared to be almost bashfully happy to be playing for the many thousands that comprised the friday night New York crowd. For those looking to see how the Replacements’ reputation for slipshod chaos on stage during their ’80s heyday would translate into a streamlined stadium reunion show, there was plenty to take note of. Westerberg seemed to go out of his way to flub the occasional lyric, repeat the occasional verse, and mumble the occasional non-sequitur in between songs.

Mostly, though, Stinson and Westerberg–the band’s two remaining originals–were content to let their songs speak for themselves. And these songs–which have meant a great deal to a growing number of young ‘Mats converts over the past two decades–have been loved, cherished, and worshipped by many but performed for few. The Replacements hardly ever had a chance to experience anything resembling semi-fame during the group’s original run, and when they did, opening for groups like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in huge rooms in 1989, playing a half-hearted, bittersweet farewell theater tour in 1991, the group was in the midst of enough internal conflict and critical wariness to render such brief exposure to a mass audience as a swift failure. The Replacements, their devoted fans, and their critical admirers weren’t ready for the group to be shared with the rest of the world twenty years ago, when authenticity-minded pop movements like grunge ruled the rock world, and the notion of selling out was a band’s first and only cardinal sin.

Much has changed since ‘91, and Friday night’s show was a moving display of proof that this band and its mythology, its ethos, but most importantly, its songs, have meant more to more people than it ever could have imagined. “Favorite Thing,” one of Westerberg’s most poignant statements of bored, lazy adolescence, opened the show with a quick jolt, a hint that the band is able to effortlessly recreate its teenaged recklessness at any moment. Indeed, the first half-dozen songs were defined by songs like “Takin’ A Ride” and “I’m In Trouble” from the earliest era of the band, when it relied on a mix of anarchic hardcore and manic punk, when Paul Westerberg was still hiding the fragile acoustic ballads that he recorded when no one else was looking. One of those secret ballads made for one of the most affecting moments of the first half of the evening, when Westerberg played a lightly-accompanied take on “If Only You Were Lonely,” his voice showing its craggly age for the first, and perhaps only, moment all evening.

The second half of the Replacements set led to the inevitable run of fan-favorite anthems like “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Bastards of Young,” “Left of the Dial” and “Alex Chilton.” The group reveled in the staying power of said songs, in the “I can’t wait’s” and “we are the son’s of no one’s” being yelled back at them from the adoring crowd. To longtime fans, it might have been a semi-sad, semi-surreal thrill to hear the music of their secret youth being played back at them for a massive pop audience. And for the many young ones who have been hearing the legendary stories and tall-tale myths about the group for the last decade or so, for the college-aged kids and the barely-adult men and women who have now grown up on a generation of indie rock supremely influenced by the four scraggly teenagers from Minneapolis, it was a transcendent affirmation to see these anthems of yesteryear being performed in the flesh. “That’s why this show meant so much to kids my age,” writes Minneapolis Zach McCormick of the band’s homecoming show the previous week in St. Paul. “We finally have a Replacements memory to call our own.”

One man who has plenty of ‘Mats memories of his own is Craig Finn, lead singer and frontman of the Hold Steady, who opened the show on Friday night. Finn ran through a tightly-packed collection of his group’s most well known tunes like “Stuck Between Stations,” “Sequestered in Memphis” and their recent single “Spinners.” Although the Hold Steady is a group whose energy and mission gets severely muted in an expansive, outdoor setting, the band’s set–which largely avoided the talk-singing, less melodic material of its beloved first two records–was a well-received warm-up for the evening. During the middle of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” Finn told a heartwarming story about first hearing about the Replacements from a friend on a tennis court after he told him his favorite band was the Ramones. Performing on a tennis court in Forrest Hills, where the Ramones are originally from, felt “full circle on a number of levels,” the Minneapolis native explained. The joy and wonder of Friday night’s Replacements show was that for those who had almost none of those same reference points as Finn, yet it somehow felt pretty full circle for us too.

Setlist for The Replacements @ Forest Hills Stadium | 9/19/14

Favorite Thing
Takin a Ride
I’m in Trouble
Don’t Ask Why
I’ll Be You
Valentine
Waitress in the Sky
Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out / Third Stone From the Sun (The Jimi Hendrix Experience cover)
Take Me Down to the Hospital
I Want You Back (The Jackson 5 cover)
Color Me Impressed
Nowhere Is My Home
If Only You Were Lonely
Achin’ To Be
Kiss Me on the Bus
Androgynous
I Will Dare
Love You Till Friday
Maybellene (Chuck Berry cover)
Merry Go Round
All Shook Down
Swingin Party
Love You in the Fall (Paul Westerberg song)
Can’t Hardly Wait
Bastards of Young
White and Lazy
Left of the Dial
Alex Chilton

Encore

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