Ween (photo: Joshua Huver)
Ween was in San Francisco this weekend for the first time since 2009, and for two nights, Friday and Saturday, October 14 and 15, they had the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium all to themselves.
Even if you’ve only been a casual fan of avant-garde fart jokes, pastiche vignettes of various genres, and an honest-to-goodness penchant for ballsy rock and roll guitar solos, there is a chance you have heard of Ween. They wiggle and worm their way into pop culture across generations — whether as mushroom-ingesting parodies of themselves in the early ’90s SNL-born flop It’s Pat! or writing songs for the more contemporary Spongebob Squarepants or The Oblongs cartoon shows, as well as several failed jingles.
In 1984, though, it wasn’t about any of that. Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo were classmates in middle school, and soon after meeting, they started playing music under Ramones-inspiried pseudonyms. Being middle schoolers, the best name they landed on was Ween (a combination of wuss and penis), and they called themselves Gene Ween and Dean Ween, respectively. Remembering their origin is crucial to understanding their attitude.
Ween is a band that is serious about not taking themselves seriously — a perfect rock and roll paradox. The spiky haired, teeth-gritting logo of theirs is affectionately known as The Boognish, and as it rises, your eyes focus, your hair blows back, your teeth grit, and the onslaught of sound combines with the campiness of middle school antics.
For 28 years, the duo has written about every little thing that has happened in their lives, and approached it with that junior-high spirit. The band mostly consisted of themselves — Deaner on wailing guitar and Gener on vocals, stage presence, and occasional rhythm guitar. For drum beats and extra layering of nuance, they enlisted the aide of a digital tape machine. But it all came to a grinding halt when Gener checked himself into rehab in 2012, ultimately ending Ween.
Until 2016, the year that has shown the world that none of your heroes are safe. As Claude Coleman Jr., the duo’s live drummer since 1993, told Westword in advance of the Colorado reunion show, “Boognish almightily rose through the smoldering, smoking cracks of subterranean Earth and into the sky, and slapped Gene and Dean upside their heads with 25 feet of flaccid penis and told them to get their shit together. In other words, the universe more or less initiated the return of Ween.” At BGCA on Friday night, Ween was a five-piece band. Joining the OG duo and Coleman was bassist Dave Drewitz and keyboardist Glenn McClelland who both joined the band in 1997.
The show started before they took the stage, as they began mixing in hard-blowing wind sounds over the house jams, even blending from Tom Petty‘s “Breakdown” to the chorus of “Hit The Road Jack” and back again. They took the stage half an hour after the posted start time, and immediately opened the evening with one of several rare fan favorites, “Did You See Me?” off of their collection of B-sides and rarities titled Shinola Vol. 1.
They moved through other songs, including “Happy Colored Marbles” off of the surprisingly dark and oft-avoided album Quebec. This led straight into one of their more offputting tunes, “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” before they worked their way into arguably the biggest critical hit of their career, “Roses Are Free.”
Their stage presence was undeniably fun. Furthest stage right, McClelland provided some of the most eerie overlays all night, coaxing discordant tones and otherworldly effects from his theremin. To his immediate left, depending on the song and the section of that song, you may have encountered Drewitz bouncing back and forth and all over the stage.
To his left, center stage was Gener. There is no question the man was born to entertain — when he sings, he contorts his body to hit the notes and wails his arms to nail the rhythms, taking a page or 20 out of the late Joe Cocker‘s playbook. Sometimes he strapped on a guitar and other songs he was playing a mandolin, but his campy voice and Spanish-speaking alter ego are by far his most versatile instruments on stage.
Coleman Jr. stayed perched upon his drum throne directly behind Gene and above the band, providing high-pitched backup vocal effects and a comfortable back beat that carried through the most uncomfortable lyrical passages and straight into Deaner’s world.
Dean Ween occupied nearly all of stage left, but didn’t venture outside of his five-foot radius often. What Dean does on a guitar is truly unique. He is the epitome of what every 12-year-old kid shredding his guitar in his bedroom wants to feel like. One of the best examples of Deaner’s ferocity came about a third of the way through the set, during a transition between songs “Licking The Palm For Guava” and “Mushroom Festival In Hell,” but it was only a tease of the mind warping sounds and heavy emotional tolls planned for the end of the evening.
“Piss Up A Rope,” a fan favorite tune that features Dean taking over on lead vocals had the crowd losing their minds, cemented for me an undeniable truth about this band. The connection between their punk-rock spirit and perpetual cowboy demeanor is 100% a derivative of their 1984 middle school formation. Ween is a thematic release where time doesn’t exist; only their imagination and the limits of what they could put out in any given setting could hold them back.
They bounced between the hilarious and the emotional songs a bit more, with titles like “Wavin’ My Dick In The Wind,” “Demon Sweat,” and “Mister Richard Smoker” but messages about getting pulled over, inability to cope with loss, and overzealous party lifestyles were all punctuated by ripping guitar solos. I found myself laughing out loud for several different reasons throughout the show, but the final five selections — the last two of the set and the three song encore — solidified me as a new fan. “Ocean Man,” a song from Ween’s 1999 album The Mollusk, the nautically themed acid-trip of an album that inspired the creator of Spongebob Squarepants, is a beautifully driving instantaneously pleasing song that reeks of late 70s punk with the uppity swing of the 50s that led into one of the most moving performances I’ve witnessed live.
Leading up to the set closer, “Buenas Tardes Amigo,” Deaner joked with the crowd: “How many of you are coming tomorrow night? Yeah? We’re playing a whole bunch of other songs tomorrow night. We’re playing all the good ones tomorrow. You got all the shitters tonight.” But with “Buenas Tardes Amig,o” the band spent 10 minutes telling a crushingly sorrowful tale of loss and remorse that was driven forward by Deaner’s guitar. Even through Gene’s campy accent, the musical pain underneath was real, and suggested to me that the only way Ween deals with these crushing realities of life is by making it campy. Once you can remove that filter, Ween makes an infinite more amount of sense.
Luckily, I was able to stick around and experience the group with that understanding for the next three songs, which in and of themselves represent a microcosm of the entire show: “What Deaner Was Talkin’ About,” “Don’t Laugh (I Love You),” and the absolute highlight oft he show, “Laura.”
Take it from me, a guy who tried to get into the band before this show, several times, and failed, several times. The only way to appreciate Ween is live. Everything comes after that. Welcome back, Ween.