One could almost look at Aaron Freeman in child-star terms. The erstwhile Gene Ween began making prank music with partner Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween) in eighth grade, eventually scoring a novelty hit with the bordering-on-unlistenable “Push Th’ Little Daisies” in 1992 after nearly a decade of dicking around in obscurity. But unlike, say, MGMT, that unexpected jump from joke band to mainstream visibility led to increasingly accomplished songwriting and live shows, and by the mid ’90s, Ween had earned a sizable cult following. An unabashed penchant for drugs was bound to unravel the group sooner or later, though, and Freeman officially announced his departure from Ween in March of 2012, citing his desire to stay sober as a primary motivation. Freeman’s first mononymous visit to Milwaukee on Thursday night invited Ween fans to discover if his newly-sober-solo-act routine would be as bland as others have historically proven to be in the annals of rock and roll, or if Freeman’s inherent weirdness would shine through.
The eponymous Freeman album, released last month, suggests a bit of both; the first track, “Covert Discretion,” is a mopey acoustic confessional before blasting off with a few choruses of “Fuck you all / I got a reason to live / And I”m never gonna die.” The Ween catalogue contains its fair share of cheese, but Freeman’s adult-contemporary bent doesn’t seem tongue-in-cheek, although most of the songs retain a certain degree of quirkiness. Perhaps the more pertinent question in the air at Turner Hall was whether Freeman would turn out to be a quality live band or just a conveyor of its namesake’s less-popular songs. As it turned out, the star power of Freeman himself was enough to carry the proceedings all by itself.
It’s not that the other musicians were no good. The backing four-piece established a full, ballsy sound on opener “Cops Are Coming,” an unreleased tune that fell somewhere between Cheap Trick and Crazy Horse on the unadorned rock spectrum, and the atmosphere of competence wasn’t compromised at any point during the night. Guitarist Chris Boerner even contributed to some of the show’s highlights, keeping pace with Freeman for an extended duel in “Exactly Where I’m At” and trading off solos for the blistering set-closer “(For A While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like A Man.” But like the others, he lacked style and presence. As the set wore on, Freeman’s affability and confidence made his cohorts seem timid and nervous by contrast. They played just fine, but they looked like they had about a week’s worth of stage experience altogether.
The straightforward approach certainly beefed up solo tracks like “El Shaddai” and “Golden Monkey,” and Ween tracks “Your Party,” “Transdermal Celebration” and “Freedom Of ’76” became shiny pop-rock nuggets, sacrificing subtlety for a more conventional payoff. But this was nothing new: a whole-hearted commitment to un-ironic rock was what made Ween so surprisingly powerful on its best nights. Freeman chose his setlist well, not throwing many bones to casual fans but playing plenty of deep Ween cuts and tailoring them to the strengths of his band. His chameleonic voice sounded terrific as well, even pulling off a respectable cover of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” for an encore. He thanked the crowd and left the stage as his backing musicians continued to jam, cementing their role as a collection of hired young guns. They may not be some powerful new creative force, but if a safe, competent band is what Freeman needs to reestablish himself as a performer in the context of sobriety, he could’ve done a lot worse.