Sapphire Supper Club, Orlando • 1.22.98
There’s something magical about your first electric guitar. You plug it in, you fiddle with the knobs — you’re not quite sure what some of them do, but you’re confident you’ll find out soon enough. Sooner or later, you’re blasting out power chords, and in your mind, you’re on stage, rocking hard. Going all out. The crowd adores you, they can’t get enough, they can’t understand how anyone could rock as much as you. You’ve got the moves, the riffs, the licks the chops, everything.
Of course, in real life, nobody actually rocks as hard as that. Nobody — except Ween.
The duo of Gene (vocals, some guitar) and Dean (guitar, more guitar) Ween hit Orlando on a cold Thursday night to… well, rock out. We entered the standing-room-only Sapphire Supper Club to strains of “Take Me Away,” the first song on Chocolate and Cheese and the first of the evening. The band on stage included not only Deaner and Gener, but new bass and keyboard players and a rock-steady drummer. The crowd was packed to the point that visits to the bathroom were ten minutes of sideways shuffling and toe-tromping. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement in this audience — they were either in stunned rapture, or didn’t know what to make of the Ween they saw on stage. Fortunately, the lack of human feedback didn’t seem to distress the band one bit.
Live, Ween dispenses with the vocal effects, leaving Gene’s soulful voice pure and uncluttered. Also gone are several production tricks that Ween uses… still, the songs remain as full as you’d expect, and the simpler arrangements leave plenty of room for flexibility. “Now I’m Freaking Out,” the only Ween track played that night which is not readily available, was jacked up, bored out, and extruded at what felt like twice the speed of the recorded version.
The band managed to touch on every album of theirs, an easy task considering they played for two and a half hours. For half of that time, I endured continued yells of “Do You Ever Walk Alone!” from the strapping young ‘uns behind me. They looked like the 1998 model “Fraternity Guy,” complete with buzz cut, goatee and piercings. While they were requesting their favorite soggy biscuit anthem, Ween paraded through “Don’t Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy),” ending with a lush five-part harmony which was missed by our oblivious cracker-coating cousins. “Do You Ever Walk Alone!” My advice: If you’re going to treat a band as your personal jukebox, ask for songs by their proper name. And get close to the stage so the band can actually hear you.
The rest of the first half of the set (or the first of two sets, depending on your perspective) flew by in a haze of new and old favorites — “Voodoo Lady,” “The Stallion Pt. 3,” “Dr. Rock,” “Sketches of Winkle,” “Buckingham Green” — before the band took a break.
Something odd must have happened during that break, because the Ween that returned seemed more interested in goofing around than in playing their material. As the members filtered back, analog synthesizer tones, bass feedback and guitar fuzz vacillated between entertainment and annoyance, in classic Ween fashion. The number evolved into some sort of pan-Asian artifact, with Gene yowling out wordless syllables like a muezzin while the drummer hit his pads to trigger tablas and other Indian percussion. This then changed into a raging “I Can’t Put My Finger On It,” which appeared to leave the band dazed after its end. Starting with a few fumbled picked notes, the band (who at that point proved themselves to be seasoned sidemen) slowly organized itself into a cover of “Friend of the Devil” with nary a missed note. The success of that number elicited several other impromptu throwback covers, including the first part of Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” that ghastly schmaltzy hit “These Eyes,” an abortive attempt at Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” and a hilarious go at the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It To The Streets” — though Gene didn’t seem to know the lyrics, it didn’t stop him from emulating Michael McDonald’s phonemes with frightening accuracy.
Some members decided this successful idolatry deserved another break, and disappeared for a couple of minutes. Dean put down his guitar and seated himself behind the drums to perform a beautifully simple “What Deaner Was Talkin’ About” with Gene on guitar and their bass player on the low end. By this time, the group behind us had given up all hopes for “Drifter In The Dark” and was now calling for “Buenas Taddes.” I guess someone at the house had purchased Chocolate and Cheese. Meanwhile, Gene had donned a mandolin for “Mister Won’t You Please Help My Pony?” Shortly thereafter, the heaviest version of “Frank” I’ve ever heard took place, and the remainder of the evening is a blur, with only a couple of highlights clear in my mind: the whole crowd joining in on the chorus of pirate/Irish/drinking song “The Blarney Stone,” and Gener playing a spectacular “Buenas Tardes Amigo” on an acoustic guitar, unaccompanied. The idiots behind me finally shut up.