"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Though normally under no circumstances would I go up to Fayetteville to watch a concert in a mall parking lot, I couldn't resist the opportunity to see what Ween would pull out of their frazzled brains last Friday night.
For the uninitiated, Ween is popularly considered a joke band — classified, along with Tenacious D and Spinal Tap, in Amazon's “comedy rock” category — and I guess that the perception is fair enough. When your set list includes titles like “Touch My Tooter” and “Help Me Scrape the Mucus off My Brain,” you obviously don't take yourself too seriously.
But unlike other “comedy rock” acts, Ween's parodic skills go beyond projecting an image. The band doesn't have much of an image at all, as a matter of fact — the two core members, Dean and Gene Ween, use pseudonyms, but not to create personas as much as to indulge in an apparent love of foolish rhymes. (Or, as when they call each other “Gener” and “Deaner,” an affinity for Canadian-sounding diminutives.) Their silliness masks a serious ear for all sorts of music genres. Take “The Mollusk,” perhaps their most respected album. Within the span of 14 songs they manage to weave Tin Pan Alley, prog rock and sea waltzes into one package. Of course, that package also contains copious swearing and dick jokes, and I would be lying if I said the band's appeal doesn't have anything to do with their filth. But filter out the lyrics and you get musical pranks that are brilliant tributes to the genres they parody.
Somehow the band's 17-year body of relentlessly juvenile work has translated into a massive live following that falls somewhere short of Phish's for enthusiasm and obsessiveness. This has always sort of baffled me. Despite the quality of their songs, I never got the sense that the members of Ween were overflowing with technical talent; many of their tunes pack a punch because of studio effects they employ. (They are masters of the funny voice, having decided a long time ago that any song can be improved by singing through a vocoder or a bullhorn.) How does this all translate to stage?
Pretty poorly, I'm dismayed to report. When I arrived during the second hour of what would end up being a three-and-a-half hour set, everything was as absurd as I'd hoped — the band was covered in the overwhelming output of a fog machine, wailing away, and soon enough its logo — a spiky-haired, block-toothed, sloppily scribbled face — was grandiosely emblazoned above the stage. That the show was taking place in a tent pitched in the shadow of the Northwest Arkansas Mall added to the ridiculousness of the scene. But the good times began to fade when the keyboardist started noodling away on some interminable tangent — a passage symptomatic of the what-the-hell attitude that fueled the entire show. The band appeared to be making it up as they went along, playing whatever struck their fancy, with members randomly disappearing from stage at times. By the encore, they were jamming on random metal riffs and improvising dirty lyrics to “The Blarney Stone,” a parody of Irish drinking songs.
To people who follow Ween, the length and spontaneity of the show must have been incredibly generous — one fan told me it was the best concert he'd seen them put on — but to the casual listener, the one that gets a kick out of Ween's tunes but doesn't follow them loyally, the whole thing was likely a bit tedious. Sure, it was entertaining and instructive in its way. I learned, for example, that Dean is the real musician, while Gene — who is somehow balding and long-haired at the same time — serves mainly as the energetic comic engine. But the whole show turned out to be more of a deranged jam than a distillation of the band's tongue-in-cheek catalogue. I guess I just prefer my Ween with a stop button.