Review: Weezer’s golden oldies at Jazz Aspen Labor Day Experience
If you could be Weezer or you could be America’s best cover band, which would you choose?
Weezer opts for both, as evidenced in the band’s breathless 75-minute set of fan-friendly Weezer favorites and covers on Friday night at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience.
Weezer has enough pop hits and rock anthems of their own to keep a festival crowd singing and woo-hooing and say-it-ain’t-so-ing along all night. But the band isn’t content with that these days, as it’s leaning into its new status as both the great ’90s heritage act and the jukebox tribute band of the moment, layering nostalgia upon nostalgia for the masses.
Playing to a buoyant crowd on a temperate evening in Snowmass Town Park, the band played six out of the 10 songs from their self-titled debut “Blue Album” from 1994, opening with “Buddy Holly” and “Surf Wax America” to set the fan-friendly tone. They actually played “Buddy Holly” twice – opening with it and also beginning the encore with a four-man barbershop quartet rendition that quieted the crowd to a hush.
Sprinkled among the “Blue Album” songs and covers were hits from the rest of their catalog — “Hash Pipe,” “Pork and Beans,” “Beverly Hills” and “Island in the Sun.” (Hardcore fans also got one song from 1996’s “Pinkerton.”)
With but a few exceptions, they played the old stuff note-perfect from the recorded versions this crowd knew well, with details matching down to samples of the recorded background party conversations on “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Weezer didn’t show up to jam or mess around or hawk the new stuff (they didn’t play anything off their new album of originals, released in March).
They gave the people what they wanted, which has been working for them lately. When a fan-generated social media campaign pushed for the band to cover the ’80s cheese rock staple “Africa,” by Toto, in late 2017, they leaned into it and became living memes by — after months of online build-up — obliging and then recording a whole album of covers with an “Africa” centerpiece earlier this year.
The covers are downright irresistible in a live setting like Jazz Aspen, where the band played — along with “Africa,” the first notes of which sent seemingly every cell phone camera in the crowd skyward — a mash-up of the Turtles’ “Happy Together” and Green Day’s “Longview,” Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” A-ha’s “Take on Me” and TLC’s “No Scrubs.”
Singer and guitarist Rivers Cuomo delivered his stage banter and rock star theatrics with the hint of irony that’s always been in Weezer’s DNA, as when he called out with a smirk early on: “Yo, Aspen! You ready for some Weezer rock?” But these cover songs — even the cornier good-time covers like “Take on Me” and “Africa” — were delivered with utmost sincerity (and the awesome soar of Weezer guitar). The covers are fun, which has also always a Weezer staple.
The most interesting of the covers, musically, ended up being “No Scrubs,” because the band had to come up with its own rock arrangements for the R&B track, while the rest of the covers they pretty much play exactly like the originals. And Cuomo has always had a unique charm when he takes his hands off the guitar and raps, as he does admirably with Chilli’s cocksure verses from “No Scrubs.”
Portugal. The Man singer/guitarist John Gourley, in his band’s hard-charging festival-opening set earlier Friday, praised Weezer lavishly and specifically cited Weezer’s mastery of writing bridges, calling them “the best bridges of all time.” So it made sense that a climax of Weezer’s set came during “My Name is Jonas,” when Cuomo, bassist Scott Shriner and guitarist Brian Bell posed in rock star formation at center-stage during, yes, the bridge before the final chorus.
When Jazz Aspen Snowmass’s Labor Day festival took off in the new millennium, it was great Baby Boomer acts that powered it to prominence — Bob Dylan (2002) and Tom Petty (2003) and Steve Miller Band (2004). By the time Weezer was closing this throwback set with “Say It Ain’t So” on Friday night, it dawned on me that this marked a generational shift toward the new oldies and an age of nostalgia for ’90s kids. Those of us who loved Weezer in our adolescence, and are now our 30s or 40s, found out Friday that our music now may be the nostalgia-based bread and butter of Aspen’s biggest pop music festival.
It dizzied me to realize we’re as far away right now from Weezer’s “Blue Album” — at 25 years — that the “Blue Album” was from the moon landing and Woodstock. Those felt like ancient history in 1994. It’s enough to induce an early midlife crisis. But at least it’ll have a good soundtrack.
The album reviews what’s truly valuable to invest time and energy in and explores themes like taking stock of your life, re-inventing yourself through second chances, pushing yourself to expand outside of comfort zones, and returning to inner joy, even when you’ve lost it.