Photo of Ween by Joseph C Roussin
The blessing of the Boognish descended upon St. Louis last Saturday when Ween played Music Park, their first appearance in the city since a 2018 set at the Pageant. The heart of Ween is its two founding members, Michael Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman, better known by their aliases, Dean and Gene Ween. Beginning with the humble origins of their lo-fi basement recordings in the 1980s—penning thought-provoking songs such as “Boobs” and “Nippy Whiffle”—Ween would go on to become one of the most celebrated acts in all of alternative rock in the ‘90s and onward. Although Dean and Gene deservedly get the lion’s share of the adoration, Ween wouldn’t be what it is today without drummer Claude Coleman, Jr., bassist Dave Dreiwitz, and keyboardist Glenn McClelland, all of whom have been performing with Ween since the mid-nineties.
The history of Ween has been tumultuous at times, with the band breaking up in 2011, not long after a disastrous show that led Freeman to separate from the group to focus on his sobriety as he pursued a solo career. Melchiondo also used the separation to pursue a solo musical career—in addition to a secondary career as a fishing boat captain—and for several years, the two toured only with their separate bands (Gene Ween played the Duck Room in 2015, and the Dean Ween Group played Delmar Hall in 2016). Happily, Dean, Gene, and the rest of the band reunited in 2016, and the full Ween lineup has been touring ever since.
Although last Saturday was my first live Ween experience, I had considered myself a well-versed if casual fan going into the show, having listened to all of their studio albums regularly since discovering them in high school. I knew that Ween shows were supposed to be legendary, and that many of their fans were extremely die hard in their knowledge of the group, to the extent that they knew details about specific Ween concerts going back decades. (At a show earlier this summer, I overheard someone boasting about seeing Ween over 20 times in 20 different states.)
If you were only really familiar with Ween from their early MTV days, it might be shocking to learn that they have a cult following comparable to the Grateful Dead, but with dick jokes. Now, having finally witnessed live Ween myself, I can only say that this reputation is completely warranted.
There was no opening act at last Saturday’s show—based on my research, Ween rarely, if ever, tours with other bands—with Ween instead playing a two-and-a-half-hour double set. A large part of Ween’s legendary live status stems from the fact that they play a different setlist every night while on tour, with songs spanning all of their releases. At last week’s show, everything from 1990’s God Ween Satan: The Oneness through 2007’s La Cucaracha was represented with at least one song. The amount of preparation and skill that must go into being able to comfortably pull out dozens of songs a night from a catalog of over ten albums is staggering—of course, this is a group of performers that have been playing together on-and-off for over 30 years, and their incredible chemistry together was plain to see.
The set got off to an incredibly strong start with two of the band’s greatest songs appearing early on—the surreal epic “Don’t Get 2 Close to My Fantasy” (from Pure Guava),and the utterly life-affirming jam “Transdermal Celebration” (from Quebec). Interspersed between the “hits” were many of the lesser known songs—lesser known clearly being a relative term, because everyone in the crowd seemed to know every song word-for-word—which were often greatly expanded from their original studio versions. One of the most amusing examples of this was during the Steely Dan sendup “Pandy Fackler,” where keyboardist Glenn McClelland gradually transformed the piano solo from the original song into a minutes-long, Tangerine Dream-style drone experiment.
The genius of Ween has always been the contrast between the potty humor and their unquestionable musical chops. Although their own music often pokes fun at the pomposity of rock music, the band’s sincerity and respect for the musicians they spoof shines through when seeing them live, whether it was Dean Ween absolutely shredding on the Hendrix-like instrumental “A Tear for Eddie” (his guitar tone was simply immaculate), or hearing Gene Ween effortlessly transition between channeling Hank Williams on songs like “Japanese Cowboy” (one of the band’s many country spoofs) and Donald Fagen on the aforementioned “Pandy Fackler.” Even the prog parody “Buckingham Green,” a song I often just thought of as “the one before ‘Ocean Man’ on The Mollusk,” took on an absolutely epic dimension that seemed every bit the equal of the source material it was parodying—ditto for the Spaghetti Western revenge ballad “Buenos Tardes Amigo,” the final song of the evening.
Although there was not a lot of banter with the crowd between songs, Ween’s delight was obvious and infectious, from Dean laughing while reciting lines like “Bol weevil, it’s a pleasel, it’s a pleasel, my weasel” (from “Big Jilm”) to Gene’s arch and gentlemanly delivery of the spoken word coda to “The Mollusk” (“You see, there are three things that spur the mollusk from the sand…”), to Claude Coleman’s (pardon the pun) spine-tingling triangle hits during the opening to “Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down.” Considering the hardships that these lifelong friends have endured during their long career together, it was heartwarming and inspiring to see them still finding so much joy in being on stage together.
As someone who always loved Ween but had not actively listened to them in a number of years, last week’s show was the perfect nostalgia trip. Since then I’ve been boring everyone who will listen with nuggets of trivia I’ve come across while researching for this article (did you know that Matt Stone and Trey Parker were going to produce a fishing show starring Dean Ween and Les Claypool of Primus?), so consider this my evolution from “Ween fan” to “Ween fanatic.” Although I will probably never be on the level of the “I saw Ween in 20 states” guy, after all these years, I feel like I finally understand “What Deaner Was Talking About.” | David Von Nordheim
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09.09.23 Chicago, IL – Salt Shed Outdoors
09.10.23 Madison, WI – The Sylvee
09.12.23 Newport, KY – MegaCorp Pavilion
09.14.23 New York, NY – Pier 17
09.15.23 Providence, RI – The Strand Ballroom
09.16.23 Hampton Beach, NH – Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom