Ween performs at The Fillmore Silver Spring in Maryland on Dec. 11, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
When the world looks back on this time period of American history, if the planet’s fortunate enough to still be spinning in the far-off future, one of the era’s defining features will have to be the rock band.
Where else do you see such a head-turning manifestation — whether right, wrong or debatable — of everything that identifies this full-speed, freewheeling, oftentimes misguided cigar boat we call the United States?
An outfit that has spanned five decades to become increasingly influential along the way, Ween has defied all odds in surviving its own lyrical insanity as well as a three-year hiatus, to resurface as of late, with no new album to speak of, but an appetite to tour that has been met with tremendous emotional response from a sect of followers who hold this peculiarly entertaining, painfully underrated rock band near and dear to their dark hearts.
And they do so while playfully worshipping The Boognish — the metaphorical demon god that, since “appearing” to the band’s founders in the early ‘80s, has overseen the project with equal parts charm and spookiness and has become a beloved symbol and successful brand recognized a mile away by any of these followers.
Out on tour because their fans demand to see these faces in person, new material or not, Ween played to a boisterous, squirrelly audience at The Fillmore Silver Spring the night of Dec. 11, in what was the last show of a three-night mini tour and more-than-convincing assurance that this band is still every bit the hallucinatory achievement in experimental rock and roll that its founders might have dreamed it to become when they were just teenagers. (Ween was promoting a vinyl repressing of their live album, Paintin’ The Town Brown: Ween Live 1990-1998, released on Dec. 16.)
Fronted by Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, who since the dawn of this entity have recorded and performed as Gene and Dean Ween, respectively, it’s one of the most lovable tandems in all of music, one that found a common bond during a typing class way back in 1984, and one that would thrive on the objectionable in creating a distinctive catalogue of undeniably outstanding albums, even if a tad offensive or entirely absurd, with songs that can absolutely throttle the listener, are reliably invigorating, hilarious at times and even moving at others.
What started as classroom daydreams in New Hope, Pennsylvania, morphed from a series of nutty — and now sought-after — tape recordings to a residency at now-shuttered City Gardens in Trenton, New Jersey, and ultimately record deals in the early ‘90s with the likes of Twin-Tone and, later, Elektra. Characterized by Gene’s theatric intonation and Dean’s blazing abilities as an electric guitar player, Ween broke through by way of a suitably odd series of happenings: “Push th’ Little Daises” was heckled on MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, other songs were used for commercials — Levi’s and Honda — and one album in particular inspired one of the greatest cartoon franchises of all time, for there would be no SpongeBob SquarePants without these men and their nautical album The Mollusk released in 1997.
Behold: The Boognish, seen here overlooking The Fillmore Silver Spring stage on Dec. 11. (Photo by Casey Vock)
In December of that same year, Phish began to cover one of the band’s tracks, “Roses Are Free,” rapidly boosting Ween’s popularity at a time when the group seemed to be finding its stride and honing the sound Gener and Deaner first recorded in analog fashion nearly 20 years earlier and then brought to life with accomplished producers like Andrew Weiss and Chris Shaw in the ‘90s and 2000s.
While Ween currently hasn’t released a studio album in 15 long years, it’s made several high-profile appearances after reuniting in 2015. Though the pandemic disrupted touring in the past few years, the group was on the road regularly this year, and with its longtime core intact — featuring drummer Claude Coleman Jr., bassist Dave Dreiwitz and keyboardist Glenn McClelland — the inexplicable force that is Ween saw fans pour into the Silver Spring venue to enjoy every moment of a triumphant, far-reaching set featuring 32 unique tracks plus a four-song encore.
A commanding take on “Buckingham Green,” a provocative fable with billowing energy and vivid imaginative powers, kicked off the night but was contrasted immediately by “What Deaner Was Talking About,” one of the sweetest tunes from 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese and a jingle that even the staunchest opponent would have to admit is enduringly pleasant to the ear.
And yet, depending on how and when a listener could have first learned of this band, there are various possible pathways to Ween that very well could or probably should make the average person say “this shit just ain’t for me” — tracks with poop, piss, drugs, diseases, various fruits, and sexual organs right in their titles could conceivably be deterrents to new fans.
But as anyone knows after absorbing this audacious band’s unforgettable and colorful releases, especially their work spanning the mid-90s to early 2000s, there’s marvelously creative songwriting around every corner and such a boundless journey of sound as to make each album its own feat.
Listen to Ween’s most recent live release, titled GodWeenSatan Live, via Spotify:
Some of those have been themed — such as 12 Golden Country Greats in 1996 and then The Mollusk a year later, and others have spoken to some of the band’s most important influences, like Prince, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles, most notably seen and felt on the band’s masterful 2000 record, White Pepper.
Ween would pull from just about all of them at The Fillmore: a festive “Light Me Up” from 2007’s The Friends EP, an anthemic edition of their country track “Piss Up a Rope,” a harmonious “Gabrielle” from 2005’s compilation Shinola, Vol. 1. and the garbled, brilliant discharge “Touch My Tooter” from the 1992 Elektra debut, Pure Guava.
Delivering early in the set, Ween thrived on its wacky, uncommon narratives and one-a-kind-vocals in every song — Gene benefits from an arsenal of astonishing voices or characters — and the band used blasts or grooves that in some cases only need a couple minutes to move an entire crowd.
Refresh yourself on the early days of Ween via the official music video for “Voodoo Lady,” a 1994 single, just posted this year to the band’s YouTube channel:
As a band, Ween sounded as sharp, compelling and as enjoyable as it has in 20 years. As a group of humans, it looks like old buddies having an awesome time.
For those who’ve really kept tabs on Ween and the path of its co-founders, the news in 2012 that the band was essentially folding was sad, even if ultimately tied to Freeman’s attempt to battle his admitted challenges with drugs and alcohol. In the meantime, both Aaron and Mickey would release their own work — Gener dropping his solo album Freeman in 2014 and Deaner releasing Moistboyz V in 2013, the fifth record in his ongoing side project.
While what these two intriguing band leaders do in their own personal time is indeed their own business, all signs point to Gene and Dean, too, currently living their best lives without the distraction or eventual ailment of all the party favors that at one point might have been intrinsic to one of these mind-blowing, comically heartfelt concerts.
As our collective consciousness has learned — not just celebrity musicians — those ingredients can wear on the soul. Though their music is still plenty of reason for fans to celebrate with libations, and a recently legalized flower as evidenced by the haze and scents of The Fillmore, Gene and Dean have apparently inspired some of their fans to follow suit.
A glimpse at the Facebook group known as Sunny Bunny Recovery / Ween Yellow Balloon Group and the associated reddit discussions reveals a network of Ween fans who have come together and likely helped save one another as they share the common goal of eliminating hard drugs and alcohol from their lives.
Coleman, too, overcame his own challenges earlier in the band’s story — he was in a terrible car accident in 2002 and had to go through rehabilitation to get back behind the kit. On this tour, he, Dreiwitz and McClelland appeared energized but totally natural, perhaps benefiting from continued synergy through their work on Dean’s 2015 album under the title Dean Ween Group. And Gene and Dean, as they have for so long, sounded like and even appeared as the perfect complement to one another — uncannily, like two real siblings.
Regardless of where it’s been, where this unit was last Sunday night was in full force upon the Fillmore stage. A decades-old band that embodies so much goofiness and — although it’s just part of the act — toys with bigotry, Ween was in polished form, with bright eyes and big smiles from ear to ear, performing songs that should still be considered cutting-edge today, and it suggested that any night with Ween might again be bound for glory.
Stream La Cucaracha, still Ween’s last studio release put out back in 2007:
Sharing the backstory to “Corn Bread Red,” which Dean said he wrote “outside the Old Bay factory,” the band was clearly embracing its final night of 2022 together on the road in Maryland. However, Gene and Dean could barely be heard throughout the set under the intense shouting from any corner. But they broke out even lesser-heard rarities, the likes of “Pollo Asado” and “Loop De Loop,” written for an episode of Spongebob back in 2000.
According to the Ween online resource BrownBase.org, some of these songs had been played less than a dozen times prior to The Fillmore gig.
Ween would eventually close the set with the timeless sea-bottom jingle “Ocean Man,” which was notably featured in the closing credits to the SpongeBob motion picture. Shifting gears, the band fired right back with the over-the-top break-up vent “You Fucked Up” — and if anyone thinks the lyrics to this piece resonate as excessive male angst, tell that to the any number of women belting every one of Gene’s words, heightening a crowd that showed up already infatuated and left thoroughly impressed with this band.
After the fulfilling encore, which included an also-rare Motörhead cover of “Ace of Spades,” Ween waved to the screaming crowd and rejoiced together. And anyone with a clear view of the stage could have read the genuine expressions of joy and appreciation as these five slapped each other on the shoulder, hugged and proudly bowed as a team.
“Thanks guys,” Dean said. “We’ll see ya next year.”
A group that has stuck together and battled its own demons, while still obeying The Boognish, of course, Ween is writing a wildly delightful tale of success, decline and now, redemption. With members who clearly care about and flourish on one another, devotees would be so fortunate to enjoy not only another Ween tour in the near future, but perhaps — maybe someday, if they’re lucky — a new studio album, too.
What Deaner Was Talking About
Light Me Up
Piss Up a Rope
Take Me Away
Sweet Texas Fire
Touch My Tooter
The Golden Eel
I Don’t Want It
My Own Bare Hands
Albino Sunburned Girl
Bananas and Blow
You Were the Fool
Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)
Polka Dot Tail
Flies On My Dick
Roses Are Free
Loop de Loop
You Fucked Up
Wavin’ My Dick in the Wind
Licking the Palm for Guava
Mushroom Festival in Hell
Ace of Spades (Motorhead cover)
Here are images of Ween performing at The Fillmore Silver Spring the night of Dec. 11, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.