Live Review: Weezer Play The Hits – And Not Just Their Own – At Madison Square Garden

Greg Allen
– Rivers Cuomo
Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo performs at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2019.

Weezer / Pixies / TV On The Radio
Madison Square Garden
New York, N.Y.
March 12, 2019

On “Pork and Beans,” the lead single from Weezer’s 2008 LP Weezer (Red Album), frontman Rivers Cuomo delivers a call to arms for the nerd-rockers he’s championed his entire career. “Imma do the things that I wanna do, I ain’t got a thing to prove to you,” he sings. “I don’t give a hoot about what you think!”

The line is the type of “My Generation” declaration designed to inspire the masses, but it has also doubled as something of a mantra for Weezer themselves ever since. Few bands inspire the degree of ridicule that Weezer does — and, as their ill-received, half-baked covers record Weezer (Teal Album) demonstrated earlier this year, it’s ridicule that Weezer sometimes seems to invite.

Teal opens with the band’s 2018 cover of Toto’s “Africa,” which a viral campaign helped make Weezer’s first No. 1 on Billboard‘s Alternative Songs chart since “Pork and Beans” a decade ago, which was also the last time they played New York’s Madison Square Garden. Fittingly, Weezer played both songs Tuesday night at the Garden, during a show that also featured Pixies, TV On The Radio and Basement but was, as far as the crowd was concerned, a Weezer concert.

Cuomo’s commitment to doing the things that he wants to do is more fan-friendly that some of rock history’s other rebels. In 80 minutes, Weezer dutifully blazed through alt-rock radio staple after alt-rock radio staple – “Undone (The Sweater Song),” “Beverly Hills,” “Hash Pipe” and more — while tossing in a deepish cut or two, like 1996 B-side “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly,” for good measure.

For Cuomo, doing the things he wants to do means boarding a rowboat on a wheels with a giant Weezer flag mounted on it and riding out onto the arena floor for a solo acoustic rendition of “Island In The Sun.” And telling the crowd, “Let me see those cellphone flashlights — make me feel like a real rockstar!” And then telling his crew to leave him out there so he can bust out the Teal cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” and flub some of the words.

For Cuomo, doing the things he wants to do means kicking off Weezer’s set with his bandmates in full barbershop quartet regalia — as previously seen on The Tonight Show — for an a cappella version of “Buddy Holly.” (Don’t worry: They played a traditional version later.)

For Cuomo, doing the things he wants to do means changing the “El Scorcho” lyric about “Green Day” to “the Pixies” and beaming, extremely pleased with himself, from behind bold eyeglasses and a puffy cream and navy vest that’d make Marty McFly proud.

At a certain point, excessive corniness becomes heartwarming, and that’s the space Weezer occupied Tuesday. It was frankly disappointing that the band played three songs from Teal (“Africa,” “No Scrubs,” A-ha’s “Take On Me”) and only one from the rest of their voluminous, often-underrated ’10s output combined (current single “Can’t Knock the Hustle”). But that’s Weezer in 2019. It’s endearing if anything, and it’s the only Weezer the scores of teens who showed up at the Garden know.

Greg Allen
– Pixies
Pixies perform at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2019.

Weezer are currently reprising the co-headlining tour with the Pixies that raked in $7.5 million in 2018, good enough to secure a spot on Pollstar‘s Year End Top 200 North American Tours chart.

Even the darkest moments in Weezer’s catalog, off 1996’s brooding Pinkerton, don’t approach the Pixies’ abstract bleakness. But Weezer have long drawn influence from the seminal Boston band: Twenty years ago, before Weezer covers were passé, they contributed a version of “Velouria” to a Pixies tribute compilation.

At the Garden, Pixies frontman Black Francis seemed to have absorbed Cuomo’s come-what-may attitude. But that means something different for Francis. Pixies slotted arguably their two biggest crossover tracks — late ’80s gems “Here Comes Your Man” and “Where Is My Mind?” — second and third, exciting the Weezer-friendly crowd early before dipping into harsher, weirder stuff. The jangling “Classic Masher,” off 2016’s Head Carrier, the group’s second LP since reforming earlier this decade, was even less appealing live than in its studio iteration. Unreleased songs “Death Horizon” and “In the Witching Hour,” making their live debuts this tour, made little impression. A cover of Neil Young rarity “Winterlong” was proficient and little else.

As with many legacy acts that try to blend the new and the old, the Pixies set lagged at times because they continue to serve up healthy doses of their classic material. The rhythm section made the Garden quake during “Gouge Away,” the simmering closer off 1989’s Doolittle. And Francis’ voice remains mesmerizing: His vacillations between singing and screaming on “Caribou,” off the band’s debut, become even more impressive when considering that he’s been doing this for more than three decades. But perhaps Weezer had the right idea in deciding to largely eschew their recent stuff.

If Weezer and Pixies were case studies in extremes, TV On The Radio found a happy medium. Champions of Brooklyn’s ’00s indie-rock scene, they still wear their borough pride on their sleeves — “I got here on the L train to the E train,” singer and guitarist Kyp Malone interjected at one point — even as they’ve settled into middle age. The band’s multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek also produces artists from Beyoncé to Weezer (he helmed their Black Album, out earlier this month) and on Tuesday, TV On The Radio sounded like they’ve been taking notes from his arena-playing clients.

Frequent set opener “Young Liars” — coincidentally sequenced next to a Pixies cover on TV On The Radio’s debut EP — soared, dazzling the few fans who arrived at 7:30 p.m. to hear it. But the set’s best tunes were “Lazerray,” “Happy Idiot” and “Could You,” all off the band’s most recent album, 2014’s Seeds. The record’s generally conventional rock has aged well, and TV On The Radio’s vibrant renditions of its material bodes well for their next studio project; the band seems poised for more dignified maturation that Weezer or the Pixies.

Not that that mattered much to Tuesday’s Madison Square Garden crowd, of course. Few alt-rock acts are as cherished as Weezer and the Pixies, and it’s reassuring in itself that they’re still on the road, still playing their songs for the people who care about them most. So what if the sets are uneven or self-indulgent? They don’t give a hoot about what you think, and that’s why audiences continue to love them.