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Gene and Dean Ween bring virtuosity and humor to live shows

Rock and Roll (genre)GenresFrank ZappaFrank SinatraLed Zeppelin (music group)Duke Ellington

It is 1984, in an eighth grade typing class in rural New Hope, Pa. Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman are ignoring the lesson, preferring instead to reflect upon the inherent merits of the Beatles, Prince and Syd Barrett. This discussion later results in an impromptu jam session, Aaron on vocals, Mickey on guitar, both preternaturally proficient for their age, tearing through Led Zeppelin covers with a primal frenzy.

And it feels good. In fact, it feels like destiny, like family, as if the two had been birthed from loins of the same blazing rock 'n' roll god — an entity they will eventually dub "The Boognish." And, so, that fateful afternoon, in the Great Boognish's honor, Aaron and Mickey decide to become blood brothers. Clasping hand over heart, they pledge allegiance to the power of the power chord, renaming and reinventing themselves — no longer Aaron and Mickey now, but transformed into the unstoppable duo, "Gene and Dean Ween."

Twenty-seven years, thousands of home-recordings, 17 albums, and countless live shows later, Ween are still making good on that vow. Saturday they will play to a sold-out crowd at the Wiltern, their unique brand of musical weirdness — part chameleonic virtuosity, part 1970s shredder showmanship — still garnering audience adoration.

When Ween released their first official record, in 1990, a double album titled "GodWeenSatan: The Oneness," there were those who dismissed them as a gag act, a stoner joke band who sang songs about burritos and bongs. But Ween's astounding endurance is inarguable proof that their work runs far deeper then critics first might have expected. Yes, they might have penned such classics as "Poop Ship Destroyer" and "Squelch the Weasel" (one of many Ween tracks featuring the weasel as a lyrical component), but Ween is not a joke band.

Their humor, sly and good-natured, is couched — not in irony, parody, or satire — but in awed homage. They are less Weird Al and more Frank Zappa (without the politics), dedicated audiophiles culling inspiration from a wide variety of genres and filtering it through their own technical prowess. Gene is an awe-inspiring singer , boasting range and clarity. And Dean's prowess at the guitar is equally impressive. They may be writing about weasels, but it's the most incredible song about weasels you've ever heard.

"We love what we do," says Melchiondo (Dean) from his home in New Hope, where the duo still lives, "and we do it with dedication and honesty and total commitment. And that's never changed."

"Well, we're both 40 and we both have families, so in that respect, some things have changed," adds Freeman (Gene), "but Dean's right. We still adhere to the same ethics, the same philosophy of, 'a good song is a good song.'"

Ween has written a multitude of good songs over their expansive career, and they show no signs of stopping. At the moment, a run in with black mold at their farmhouse studio has hindered recording a new album, but the two continue to write and play prolifically. Their back catalogue boasts an array of strange sounds inspired by glam rock and folk (1991's "The Pod"); pop, punk, and soul (1992's "Pure Guava"); raucous sea shanties (1997's "The Mollusk"); and classic country (1996's "12 Golden Country Greats").

"I love music of every dynamic. I love Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington and Slayer," Dean explains. "We like to explore when we write and not be tied down to a genre. So now we have over 200 songs and even that's not enough, because you want to be challenging yourself always. There's nothing wrong with being in a comfort zone, but you want to keep pushing yourself."

Such dedication has resulted in Ween's massive fan base, an ever-evolving network of music freaks who find solace in the band's disregard for convention and embrace of fine musicianship. And in an era of one-hit YouTube wonders, Ween are still the same four-track heroes they always where, committed to crafting obscure concept albums and mind-blowing live shows.

"A rock 'n' roll band should drink, do drugs, act obnoxious and cheap, because that's what it's all about," Dean enthuses, "but at the risk of sounding like a bitter old man, nowadays you have someone playing a toy piano and or something and that's supposed to be music. We played festivals this summer and there wasn't any distortion or loud guitars. It's not like we're Ted Nugent or something, but geez. I think people miss rock with [guts]."

He laughs.

"I'm still struggling to find our role, our place in the music industry in 2011. It's a strange time. I mean, we're playing to more people on this tour than we ever have and we don't have a new record out."

"I didn't think I would be doing this when we started in 1984," Gene admits, "but then again, I didn't have any other ideas of what I was going to do instead. I think one of the reasons we've lasted so long is that we've always done our own thing. It's a matter of two people getting together and playing together and it is what we make of it. It's as simple as that. I liken it to more of a marriage between two people than a band. And with that comes its ups and downs and its times of intimacy and distance and miscommunication. But as long as we're still walking on the earth. Ween will still be there."

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Rock and Roll (genre)GenresFrank ZappaFrank SinatraLed Zeppelin (music group)Duke Ellington
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