Slim Dunlap played guitar for four years in the Replacements, one of themost acclaimed and influential rock bands of the 1980s.
But as he launched his solo recording career this year, (solo albums being de rigueur for ex-Replacements in '93), even committed Replacements fans probably had a dim idea of what Dunlap was about, and very slim expectations of what he could do.
The guitarist, whose given name is Bob, joined the Replacements for the more-stable but less-brilliant later chapters of an often-chaotic career that produced some of the best rock songs of the '80s. He played on "Don't Tell a Soul," a good album, but less memorable than the band's definitive troika ("Let It Be," "Tim" and "Pleased to Meet Me"), and on "All Shook Down," the 1990 release that suggested the Replacements were about ready to call it a career--as they did the following year.
On stage, Dunlap was the skeletal-looking fellow who stood off to the right while most fans focused on front man Paul Westerberg, howling and croaking at center stage in his role as the game but overmatched rock 'n' roll prizefighter, or let their attention wander to bassist Tommy Stinson, who always had the coolly dissolute look of a born-rocker.
Dunlap, who headlines tonight at Bogart's in Long Beach, may have been overshadowed in the Replacements, but his album, "The Old New Me," is a more endearing work than Westerberg's solo debut, "14 Songs."
It rocks on a foundation of choppy, spitfire licks that are derived from Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones but are played with enough spin of his own to infuse that simple, familiar format with vigor, personality, and juicy raunch. Along the way, Dunlap also dabbles in rockabilly, swivel-hipped Latin rhythms, acoustic balladry that calls to mind both the Stones and early Bruce Springsteen, and offers sweetly lyrical picking on an old James Burton instrumental ballad.
Dunlap didn't sing or write for the Replacements (that being the domain of Westerberg, the dominant member), but he emerges on his own album as a sturdy, warm-voiced singer. In his songwriting, he takes the stance of a weathered but wry observer who has seen hard knocks but has kept his compassion and his sense of humor through circumstances that might have left others bitter and jaded. Like Westerberg, he is firmly on the side of the underdog, figuring it's better to have a big heart than to be a big deal.
Only "Partners in Crime," an ode to rock's big-hearted losers, sounds like a Replacements song. Instead of setting up comparisons between Dunlap's album and solo records by Westerberg, Stinson and his other old band mate, drummer Chris Mars, it's more apt to measure him against the recent solo work of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. "The Old New Me" is the album that either of the Stones guitarists might have made if their singing voices weren't pickled in formaldehyde, and if years of the limousine life hadn't made it hard for them to reach back for a down-to-earth perspective.
As he spoke over the phone recently from a friend's house in San Francisco, Dunlap was about as far from the halls of jaded superstardom as a rocker can get. A wheezing van had been unable to carry Dunlap and his band to Seattle for a gig the night before, so they had decided to crash on a hospitable floor before proceeding with the tour's remaining dates in California.
Living in vans and on floors certainly means slimmer pickings than Dunlap enjoyed with the Replacements, who, while never best-sellers, emerged as a respectable concert draw during their latter years.
The hardships of low-budget touring don't seem to have lowered Dunlap's spirits or diminished the enthusiasm that he says is vital to what he does.
His first solo tour has been "as much fun as I've had on the road," said the rocker, a friendly talker who speaks in the soft, drawling, easygoing voice of a rancher in a TV Western. "I've brought some guys that have never been on the road before. . . . Some guys have done it too long and lose the thrill of it, and I can't stand that. If this ever becomes drudgery, I couldn't do it."
Dunlap, 41, had been part of the Minneapolis rock scene for years when the Replacements called on him to replace Bob Stinson, the unruly guitarist whose hard-living ways had exceeded even their high threshold of acceptable chaos.
Dunlap had grown up in the farming community of Plainview, Minn., indoctrinated in '50s and '60s rock by older sisters and a father who supported Dunlap's interest in music. He moved to Minneapolis in his late teens, and embarked on an assortment of gigs that saw him play country music and R&B as well as rock.
"I played in every little band I could play in, every band that would have me," Dunlap recalled. "Slowly but surely, I got this reputation as a guy who could play anything. One night you'd see me play bluegrass in a little pizza shop, the next night it would be hard rock."