The beautiful thing about rock ’n’ roll is that whenever your faith waivers or you become the least bit jaded, along comes someone unexpected to restore balance. Tonight in Atlanta, at candle-lit venue Smith’s Olde Bar, it’s Tommy Stinson.
After rocking out in various acoustic, electric and pedal-steel duo incarnations, the former Replacements bassist declares, “I’m getting a drink. You can come with me if you want.” And sonofabitch if he’s not dead serious. Acoustic guitar in hand, Stinson steps off the stage into the crowd, saunters over to the bartender and orders himself a stiff drink. He takes a long slug, hops up, plants himself on the bar and starts strumming a few chords. “I’m a lot more comfortable up here,” he says. Then, unexpectedly, he breaks into Loudon Wainwright’s “One Man Guy.” The few people chatting it up across the room are instantly silent, and the crowd draws closer, forming a semicircle around the impromptu troubador. When the chorus comes around, the club becomes a drunken, late-night living room singalong. Stinson plays another unplugged tune, just sitting there on the bar amidst old Atlanta friends, fans and recent converts. It’s music in its purest form—for a lucid moment, stripped of all pretension.
Suddenly, a ghostly sound emerges. Opener Ken Will Morton—who proved a hell of a songsmith himself, spilling inspiring, whip-smart ballads full of social commentary, heartbreak and beauty—materializes from the crowd blowing sweet, lonesome harp. Stinson welcomes him to the bar and they jam a bit before finishing the song. Finally, Stinson returns to the stage, fully amplified to close the show.
Earlier, he’d played a heartfelt cover of his beloved Big Star and now he finishes with an encore from his days fronting Bash & Pop. Inevitably, someone calls for a Replacements tune, totally missing the point and all Stinson has to offer on this mild winter night in Atlanta. “Paul’s still around to play those songs,” Stinson says of his former bandmate, Paul Westerberg. “There’s no point in us both doing it.”
Before going out solo in a hazy blast of dim blue light, Stinson pours his soul onto the stage in front of a room of people happy to share a moment of transcendence—isn’t this why we listen to music in the first place?
After the show—though I almost never do this—with a cheap beer buzz surging through my veins, I wait in line with the other fans for an autograph. I tell Tommy I enjoyed the show, that I write for Paste, and that we did a story on him last year when his solo debut Village Gorilla Head came out. I tell him I wasn’t planning on writing about the show tonight but that I was so moved I felt I had to. With a sly grin, Tommy extends a hearty handshake and signs the back of the napkin on which I’d scribbled my thoughts about his performnance. I say goodbye and stagger toward the staircase, pulling the memento from my pocket as soon as I’m out of sight. With anticipation, I unfold the note and start reading:
All Lies. Tommy.
Rat bastard. Well, what did I expect? Punk rock to the core.