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Westerberg Returns To Action In Minneapolis

The good news is that Paul Westerberg is writing songs again, but the bad news is there is neither an album nor a tour in the immediate future. The reclusive Minneapolis icon took to the stage last night (Sept. 23) at the city’s First Avenue for an installment of “The Craft,” a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chat-and-sing series a la VH1’s “Songwriters.”

Warren Zanes, currently of the Hall of Fame and formerly of the Del Fuegos, interviewed Westerberg for 90 minutes and the Replacements leader played 10 tunes from his ‘Mats (“Skyway,” “Can’t Hardly Wait”) and solo catalogs (“Dyslexic Heart,” “World Class Fad”).

Zanes asked insider questions about song sequencing on albums and writing bridges for tunes. But he also pulled a few nuggets that Replacements’ fans would dig:

— Producer Jim Dickinson added overdubs, including strings, on “Pleased To Meet Me” that Westerberg didn’t discover until he heard the album.

— Each of the three Replacements was in separate rooms for the recording; Westerberg was in the studio hallway. “I had ZZ Top in the next room,” he said. “It never leaked on to the tape but I could hear ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ in the next room.”

— On those sessions, “They sampled Chris’ [Mars] kick drum. That’s why it rocks,” he said. “Chris could play the hell out of snare and high hat.”

— After John Cale came by to record violin on “Sadly Beautiful” on “All Shook Down,” the Replacements had to hide his instruments because Lou Reed, Cale’s ex-colleague in Velvet Underground, was coming down to the studio that night.

— Westerberg took a three-and-a-half year hiatus after his son Johnny was born. “I liked it more than I contemplated,” he said. “I found it so fulfilling that I found it hard to strap on an electric guitar.”

— Zanes asked about Westerberg mythology, calling him the J.D. Salinger of rock for going underground. Quipped the artist, “I’m the Catcher in the Slump.”

Appearing in front of 500 people on a legendary nightclub stage converted into a talk-show set, Westerberg performed one new song, “Everyone’s Stupid,” which he explained was about a friend of his now 9-year-old son who was the last to know about his parents’ impending divorce. The song was from the kid’s point of view.

The singer also offered a ‘Mats outtake, “Make the Best of Me, ” which he said the band rejected as being too “spiritual” during the “All Shook Down” era.

Zanes had Westerberg pick four favorite songs — the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye,” the Rolling Stones’ “Tumblin’ Dice,” the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Jimmy Reed’s “You Got Me Running” — and talk about them. One of the night’s highlights was when Westerberg, after saying “I wish I could play it,” spontaneously played the J5 smash as an instrumental on acoustic guitar.

Zanes didn’t ask about Westerberg’s fretting hand, which he injured in December while trying trying to clean some candle wax with a screwdriver. In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune in June, the guitarist said, “I’m one-third of the way to being possibly 80 percent all better.” In other words, the doctor told him it would take 18 months to recover from the injury — damaged nerves in the webbed area between the ring and pinkie finger — and he would regain only 80 percent use of his hand.

Westerberg had to re-teach himself how to play guitar. It didn’t seem to be a problem last night though, as he accompanied himself on acoustic and electric guitars, six- and 12-strings in both styles.

After hitting “a dry spell,” the less-than-prolific star has been writing again but doesn’t know if he’s close to completing an album. He has turned down offers from Universal and Sony to start his own label.

After the taping, Zanes said that Westerberg was his “favorite” interview in the series thus far. “I was reared on his stuff,” Zanes said. “I was nervous about what Paul I would get. I’m really pleased with how generous he was. Paul sounded like he was at home up there; I wasn’t expecting that. Clearly, his maturation process has been a dignified one.”

Interviews in “The Craft” series can be heard in their entirety at the Hall of Fame archives or in part via Already taped are Elvis Costello, Patty Griffin, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and Ben Gibbard. Scheduled for interviews are Frank Black Oct. 17 in San Diego and Aimee Mann Oct. 23 in Chicago.