Despite the setbacks, spells of seclusion, and occasionally subpar solo efforts, ex-Replacements leader Paul Westerberg's music remains, in the eyes of his followers, a beautifully scarred and still-secret country populated by habitual underdogs, unreformed romantics, joyriding punks, and emotional car wrecks. These inhabitants -- whether the blissed-out kid fumbling with desire in ''Kiss Me on the Bus" or the middle-age lonely-heart in ''Let the Bad Times Roll" -- are all, ultimately, different versions of Westerberg, coping with the everyday and celebrating the small triumphs along the way.
During a two-hour show packed with manic peaks that more than made up for a few meandering valleys, the singer-songwriter's often remarkable, generation-defining catalog -- has it really been nearly 25 years since the Mats' opening salvo, ''Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash"? -- was on proud, loud, sloppy, and sublime display. If the songs were his self-made country, Westerberg's voice was its valiantly fading flag: a ragged, wounded marker signifying self-doubt, bluster, pathos, haphazard joy.
Touring with a sharp yet loose three-piece band in support of 2004's ''Folker," as well as a forthcoming solo best-of CD, the singer-guitarist effectively mixed the requisite new material with left-of-the-dial covers (Monkee Michael Nesmith's ''Different Drum"; Sham 69's ''Borstal Breakout") and the old favorites everybody came to hear. He didn't skimp on the Mats' glory daze, and the clutch of classics such as ''I Will Dare," ''Little Mascara," ''Swinging Party," and a slew of other time-capsule trips drew the expected Pavlovian response: ecstatic gasps followed by cheers of recognition and rapture.
Save for a derailed ''Can't Hardly Wait" that Westerberg submarined midway by trading his guitar for a seat behind the drum kit, the old, speedy stuff sounded as vital as ever. But even the good-humored stumbles harked back to the Mats' legendary propensity for turning concerts into drunken rehearsals shot through with sarcastic stabs at AM-radio schlock and heavy metal covers. And as with his old outfit, just when you counted him out, Westerberg roared back to electric life, bashing out a Mats-heavy encore spring-loaded for cheap thrills: the pure adrenaline rush ''Never Mind"; the show closing ''Left of the Dial"; and ''Alex Chilton." The latter, a pop-perfect homage to the songwriter and fellow cult icon, included an apt line that the audience could have easily applied to Westerberg's own work: ''I'm in love / With that song!" Indeed we were.