By Rob Cox
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The velvet curtain had yet to open at the Ritz night club in New York's East Village when the opening riff of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" thundered over the rowdy crowd.
Paul Westerberg emerged stage right with a guitar strapped around him before the curtain parted, and the Replacements, long on critical acclaim but without great commercial success, played what punk rock cognoscenti regard as one of the greatest concerts ever.
That show, on June 21, 1986, was sloppy, raucous and unpredictable. By the end of the performance, an inebriated Westerberg had broken a finger after diving off the stage, forcing the band to cancel the rest of the tour.
The Replacements appear on a U.S. stage again on Sunday for the first time in more than two decades when they play at Riot Fest in Chicago's Humboldt Park. It is hard to imagine that they could ever top that night at the Ritz, now renamed Webster Hall.
During the show the band, which is credited with giving punk rock an emotional edge, powered through several covers and original songs that have since made them indie rock godfathers, from the earnest ballad "Unsatisfied" to anthem "Bastards of Young".
It was also the late guitarist Bob Stinson's last concert with the band he had founded as "Dogbreath" in the late 1970s, when the group took part in a musical renaissance in Minneapolis along with Prince and fellow punk band Husker Du.
Although older and more mature like their fans, there's every hope that the band - with original members Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson, Bob Stinson's younger brother - will add another riff to music history with their reappearance for at least a few shows.
The group, once dubbed by Rolling Stone magazine as "generational spokesmen," could have had its pick of venues and festivals for their comeback, but chose the mid-profile Riot Fest because of its independence and its freedom from corporate sponsorship, Westerberg's manager Darren Hill said.
The timing was simply fortuitous, Hill said, "Tommy (Stinson) described it best - the planets just kind of aligned."
Last year, Stinson and Westerberg reunited to record a few songs and release a benefit album for their former guitarist Slim Dunlap, who had suffered a debilitating stroke. It was the first Replacements release since the 1990 album "All Shook Down".
Sensing an opportunity, Riot Fest founder Mike Petryshyn said he reached out to the band.
"I first approached it casually between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, which is when you throw out feelers in our world," said Petryshyn. "In all honesty, I didn't really think this was going to happen because everyone wants the Replacements to play."
As the discussions progressed, and the band learned of the other acts playing at Riot Fest - including contemporaries the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Husker Du's Bob Mould - "this thing kind of had legs," Petryshyn said.
The band is also due to headline Riot Fest in Denver on September 21.
(Editing by Eric Kelsey and David Storey)