The Wrens at Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ, December 3, 2009 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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The Wrens

The Wrens at Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ, December 3, 2009,

Jan 14, 2010 Web Exclusive
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The Wrens are one of those bands that defines cult status. Let’s frame it in the context of one of the biggest “cult” acts to ever grace the indie stage, Neutral Milk Hotel. After recording two albums, one a certified classic, the band and its enigmatic frontman Jeff Mangum simply went away, and people have been pining for them ever since. New Jersey’s The Wrens have followed a similar musical trajectory in their 20-year history, recording very littlethree albums and a smattering of EPs and 7-inch recordsyet they are critically acclaimed for their work and have developed a quite devoted following, renewed in recent years by the strength of their “comeback” album, 2003’s The Meadowlands. However, unlike Neutral Milk Hotel, The WrensCharles Bissell, Kevin Whelan, Greg Whelan, and Jerry MacDonaldnever actually left. They just prefer to keep largely to themselves. Which makes their three 20th anniversary shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ something special indeed.

The plan was to play three entirely different concerts. On the show this reviewer had the pleasure of seeing, the band was to play a selection of songs spanning their slim, two decade long catalog, with the set list determined at the request of fans who picked songs from the band’s website. The second of the three shows, an early concert the following night, would have the band playing The Meadowlands in its entirety, and a third, a late show that night, was to feature entirely new material, something that is like manna to the Wrens’ faithful.

It seemed, from the youthfulness of much of the crowd, that many may have come to The Wrens with The Meadowlands, and the band did not eschew its more recent catalog despite the concert’s expressed purpose of playing old tunes. [Then again, I guess when you only release one album every seven years or so, they’re all old tunes. Sorry, it was just too easy.] Nevertheless, the band opened with two older, older tunes, “What’s a Girl” and “Built In Girls” from 1994’s Silver and 1996’s Secaucus, respectively, followed by “Everyone Choose Sides” from The Meadowlands, “Propane,” (introduced as “the first song from our first record”), and “Thirteen Grand,” again from the band’s newer release.

It was remarkable to see the band in full force, and this reviewer was taken aback at how powerful the band was live, even 20 years from its formation. The Meadowlands, while containing some certainly emotion-filled musical moments, was nothing compared to the energy, charisma, and drive the band put forth live. Bissell’s guitar work was alternately wildly unrestrained and hypnotically lyrical, which was a mesmerizing sight for someone standing just in front of him, stage left. Kevin Whelan was a whirling dervish of emotion, exalting the crowd to sing along and raise their hands, swigging wine in honor of his birthday (he, the youngest of the Wrens, turned 40 on this day), and bashing at his old duct-taped bass with gale force. Brother Greg Whelan was an anchor of calm in the otherwise tumultuous sea, gracing the mic for a few vocal performances that contained an intensity belying his otherwise stoic demeanor. And drummer, MacDonald played the eternal jokester, amiable and infinitely likeable, once being part of a jab about how having kids can curb your music career, but yet stepping out front to for the heartfelt “The House that Guilt Built.”

The best moments of the night were perhaps the most diverse. The band first graced the stage with humor, telling the crowd that the show was to be “a 35-song tribute to Southern rock’s the Outlaws.” The band was in jovial spirits throughout the night, joking about the paucity of their catalog and how a group of guys can maintain band status for two decades. After the band’s second song, they joked to the sold-out audience, saying, “When you are dying, you will look back on this show and thank Christ.” But when not engaged in this between-song banter, the band was a revelation: the horns that joined the band for “What’s A Girl” and the pre-encore number “Broken” (the closing song from the band’s debut); the way The Meadowlands’ “Happy” ended in violent escalation of visceral emotional intensity; how Bissell tore through that same album’s “This Boy Is Exhausted” at super speed. The examples were countless.

Toward the end of the show, Kevin Whelan summed it up, saying, “There’s no script. This isn’t fucking John Mayer.” Thank God for that. And thank God for The Wrens. With shows like this, it’s hard not to get behind the faithful in their endless support of this band, who’s released so little in so long and comes out of hibernation once in a long while to play live. Word on the street is that The Wrens will have a new album in 2010. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. (


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