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Capable Replacement

Paul Westerberg, who helped drive the post-punk band, wrote `Open Season' songs.

October 04, 2006|Steve Appleford | Special to The Times

Fans waited years for a moment like this, dreaming and begging for a reunion ever since the Replacements broke apart in 1991. So here was Paul Westerberg at the Greek Theatre, singing and strumming a plaid electric guitar and finally sharing a stage again with bassist Tommy Stinson. And they were just the opening act to the talking animals.

The night's main event was the premiere of Sony Pictures' animated feature "Open Season," an unlikely catalyst for a rare reunion of what's left of the Replacements, survivors of a band of deeply influential post-punk screw-ups and songs of great, reckless emotion. Westerberg was there to perform music he had written for the film, which opened No. 1 at the box office over the weekend. And a few days before, Stinson had been on a stage in San Bernardino with his other band, the current version of Guns N' Roses.

"It's Replacement-lian for the fact that we would get together in front of a bunch of children and foreign press people," a grinning Westerberg says later, between sips of a double cappuccino at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. His own 8-year-old son was in the crowd. "There was a handful of people out there who knew who we were."

Nearly three years ago, Westerberg was recruited to write songs for "Open Season," an animal buddy film that follows the comical misadventures of a bear and a deer lost in the wilderness while fleeing hunters and angry squirrels. It became his main musical project, not only writing and recording songs but also crafting the musical score (with Ramin Djawadi).

Within a few days of his first meeting with studio execs, and with only a brief explanation of the story of "Open Season" to go on, Westerberg had written and recorded a new song, "Right to Arm Bears," which appears both in the film and on a soundtrack album released by Lost Highway Records.

"His ballads are as phenomenally touching as anything written, and he's also really smart and funny," says Lia Vollack, a former punk-rock roadie who is now Columbia Pictures' president of worldwide music. "But as we were working with him and hearing the songs and what great melodies they were, we started thinking how great it would be if those melodies were the basis for the underscore."

The Replacements were famously uncomfortable with the expectations and trappings of the big-time music business, but Westerberg has so far discovered a welcoming setting for his songwriting in films. And although he also provided songs for the 1992 Cameron Crowe film "Singles," he remains blissfully unaware of the latest Hollywood machinations. His favorite movies tend to be from another era.

"I'm the odd man out here," says the Minneapolis-based musician. "I don't know the latest movies; I don't know who's popular. I only know what I'm told."

At a meeting with film industry people earlier that day, as the examples of current film composers came up, Westerberg didn't always know the names. "I almost had to confess: 'Well, actually, I'm a songwriter,' " he says with a laugh. "I don't know if that's looked upon as like a lowlife."

The recording of music for "Open Season" also led unexpectedly to the reunion with Stinson, who provided bass and backing vocals on a few songs, the first time they had recorded together in several years. That seemed to open the door to other possibilities. And later they recorded (with former Replacements drummer Chris Mars on backing vocals) two new songs for this year's Replacements retrospective, "Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?"

The Replacements were tuneful, anti-establishment heroes in the Reagan-Bush years, full of cheap jokes, too much booze, loud guitars and songs of genuine feeling, all of it falling apart just in time to miss the '90s alternative revolution they helped inspire.

At the Greek, Stinson and Westerberg were joined by drummer Josh Freese, who would probably be part of any future projects of the two, since Mars has given up music for painting. "The Rolling Stones have stayed together and you wonder why," says Westerberg. "And when you first leave a group, you figure I'll go out on my own or get another group. Then five or 10 years pass, and you realize you're damn lucky if you get one really good band in your life."

Westerberg isn't eager to return to the grind of a national tour, playing the old songs yet again, especially now that he's found another setting for his music in films -- for a moment, at least, straying from the path of the Ramones and more toward that of songwriter-film composer Randy Newman. But Westerberg did manage to reprise something from his solo career for "Open Season" -- the tearful ballad "Good Day," a song written in tribute to the late Bob Stinson, the founding Replacements guitarist and Tommy's older brother. It gets prominent placement in the movie.

"I almost have to close my eyes for that part every time, because I can remember myself singing that in the studio," Westerberg says. "And it was Bob's song forever to me. But we even joked a little: Bob was a big lovable bear anyway, so he wouldn't mind."

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