Aesthetics aside, it’s not terribly surprising that Weezer singer Rivers Cuomo’s favorite rock group is KISS. Weezer’s die-hard cult followers — mostly dorks of the post-grunge generation and millennial tweens — are the KISS Army of emo. And like KISS, Weezer has, thanks to some beige plastic power-pop fuck-off-ery, made dedicated fandom an increasingly frustrating endeavor. Over the past 13 years, Cuomo & Co. have made it more and more impossible to apologize for them. And yet, their classic Clinton-era "Blue Album" and its follow-up Pinkerton still endure. So, in typical Weezer fashion, the band played each album over a pair of weekend shows at the Ryman, along with sets of, well, other songs. And in typical Spin fashion — filled with equal parts earnest nostalgia and morbid curiosity — we just had to go.
On Saturday, we took our seats as riff-rocking power trio The Last Internationale (featuring Rage Against the Machine’s still impressively youthful-looking Brad Wilk on drums) kicked into their classic-rock-cribbing jams. They were a bit like a female-fronted Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — although, perhaps we’re just saying that because their new single “Killing Fields” brought to mind the BRMC cut “Spread Your Love.”
About midway through the Internationale’s set, a fourth member joined the group, allowing frontwoman Delila Paz to step out from behind her bass (which she’d swapped for acoustic guitar on a couple of songs) in order to pull some especially Alison Mosshart-esque moves at the microphone stand. The Last Internationale is in no way reinventing the wheel — they’re just affixing it to some familiar vehicles — but as far as openers are concerned, it was perfectly appropriate fare: some Rock Music to get a crowd of dweeby-skewing Rock Fans loosened up. Not that they weren’t pretty loose to begin with — particularly the guy in the light-up Weezer cape.
And next, Weezer opened for Weezer. That is to say, the 21st century incarnation of Weezer played a set of their latter-day power-pop (or rather, power-pap) tunes in “reverse chronological order,” working their way toward 1994. Cuomo explained clearly how the set would work, and then he explained it some more, “turning back the dial” from song to song, starting with “Memories” from 2010’s Hurley. Raditude, The Red Album, Maladroit and The Green Album were all represented, punctuated with little bursts of instrument- and vocal-swapping that, to us, seemed to betray a sense of boredom. Like, would Rivers have moved to drums for The Green Album’s “Photograph” and a cover of Blur’s “Song 2” if he wasn’t trying to keep himself interested in the material?
The opening set closed with Pinkerton’s genuinely wonderful “El Scorcho,” a mostly acoustic and three-part-harmony-replete rendition of “Susanne” (the “Undone” B-side and Mallrats soundtrack cut that Weezer would go on to play in Third Man Records’ vintage record booth the following day) played while gathered around a single mic, and then the new song “Back to the Shack.” “Shack” — likely a cut from Weezer’s upcoming ninth studio album, which they recently tracked with Ric Ocasek — is about as nostalgia-fetishizing a song as ever we’ve heard, with its references to “rockin’ out like it’s ’94” and the “lightning strap.”
During intermission, Weezer archivist/webmaster/historian/official bestie/hetero life mate Karl Koch narrated a rather precious slideshow that focused primarily on Cuomo & Co.’s earliest days. There were shots of the residence that housed the garage of “In the Garage” fame, flyers from places with names like Club Dump, photos of Cuomo with long hair and an early review calling the band a “Nirvana wannabe.”
Every moment of the Blue Album set felt more potent than the entire set that preceded it, and we’re not just saying that because we, along with everyone else, were viewing this part of the show through a lens of nostalgia. Power-pop gems like “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” and “Surf Wax America” were written by a band untouched by stardom or boredom, not to mention the fact that they’re frankly just a lot better than songs like “Dope Nose” and “Hash Pipe.” The iconic, illuminated “W” replaced with a simple blue background and Cuomo now spec-less in a T-shirt, Weezer performed true-to-original versions of the Blue tunes without any instrument- or vocal-swapping parlor tricks. Well, almost. Brian Bell sang a little bit of “Holiday,” and Cuomo’s adorable 6-year-old daughter Mia played keys on “Buddy Holly.” But otherwise — and aside from the fact that founding bassist Matt Sharp left the band in 1998 — these renditions were pretty much just what we heard at our first Weezer concert (opening for No Doubt at the since-demolished Starwood Amphitheater in June 1997), from the opening strains of “My Name Is Jonas” to the closing notes of “Only in Dreams.”
For night two, the band was back to the same kind of insipid shenanigans, essentially opening for themselves with a gimmick-rife, pre-Pinkerton “greatest hits” set. This time, in touristy downtown Nashville spirit, Cuomo performed much of the set while wearing a black cowboy hat (handed off to him by a roadie), bassist bro Scott Shriner sang a song again, that sort of stuff. Oh, and Patrick Wilson’s drum kit rather inexplicably looked like it belonged on a Guitar Center floor display, featuring as many toms and floor toms as Lars Ulrich's set-up, in addition to boasting splash and china cymbals along with a set of Stewart Copeland-style octabons. As such, many of Wilson’s fills were more like musical punch lines. For the benefit of the many fans who hit up both shows, the grab-bag set was — save for show-theme-establisher opener “Memories” and the deplorably bro-country-worthy “Back to the Shack” — totally different song-selection wise, with first-night tunes switched out for counterpart singles. “Dope Nose” gave way to “Keep Fishin’”; “Hash Pipe” tapped in for “Island in the Sun” and so on. Sitting across the aisle from us, Nashville star Charles “Chip” Esten got way into the beach-ball frenzy during “Island,” which is totally something we could never see Deacon doing, right?
Despite the variety, and as expected, Sunday’s reverse-chronological countdown was mostly filler, no killer, with the exception of an inevitably nostalgic romp through “Buddy Holly” and the inclusion of the top-tier Pinkerton-era B-side “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly” — that totally kicked ass. Of course, we might be in the minority with our take on the set, as “You Gave” didn’t evoke nearly the fevered crowd response of latter-day cuts like 2008’s “Troublemaker” and the 2005 hit “Perfect Situation,” which dorks sang along to like 1980s Amnesty International volunteers during a Peter Gabriel performance of “Biko.”
But that fervor was nothing in comparison to what met a front-to-back performance of the band’s beloved 1996 sophomore-slumper Pinkerton, a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release that was kept alive by mythic fan appreciation. Eighteen years after its release, the album is a bona-fide, bombastic coming-of-age classic that would triumph blasting out of a boom box in the raised arms of John Cusack (sorry for the second Peter Gabriel reference), and one that would be totally drained of reverence were the band to give songs like “No Other One” and “Pink Triangle” the goofy clown-college-rock treatment of their post-Y2K revues. Can you imagine Cuomo bopping around, trying to hype the crowd during “Across the Sea”? Thank GOD that didn’t happen.
Pinkerton is everything Cuomo has seemingly been running away from for the rest of Weezer’s career since; it has all the raw emotion, vulnerability and rough-hewn soul-bearing that feels a million miles away from the detached, careerist bubblegum of shit like Raditude. As such, like Darth Vader unmasking to reveal a young Anakin Skywalker, when the band emerged post-intermission/slideshow presentation, the difference was night and day. Cuomo, eyes downcast and back to taking center mic as the introverted anti-frontman he naturally is, looked kind of miserable — and that’s a good thing! Pinkerton isn’t a fun record, it’s a cathartic one (OK, we concede that Night 2's en-masse “El Scorcho” sing-along was a blast).
From a rocking, rousing “Tired of Sex” at the start to a tender “Butterfly” (giving Cuomo his McCartney “Yesterday” moment) to close, the Pinkerton performance was honest, reflective and (working in combination with a cocktail or two) made us have feels about things, or at least connected us back to the feels about things we felt before we, you know, totally understood our feelings. We witnessed Weezer as they once were: great. As for the album itself — as it turns out, its lust-filled 10-song, three-act trajectory traversing self-doubt, hope and (ultimately) projection, failure and acceptance — never really gets old, even if we’re not so young anymore.