Overheard at the show: "I wish we could be cool and say, I like you, you like me, let's get to know each other, but it always has to be about who's in control. Like, she goes crazy if I haven't responded to her e-mail within the hour, and in my own sick way, I know that, so I sit on her message for three hours."
When you're seeing a show by the band that wrote perhaps the greatest breakup song ever ("Happy"--more on that later), you couldn't ask to overhear a more appropriate exchange.
Any self-respecting indie kid knows that the Wrens are one of the notable success stories of the past few years, and I won't rehash their tale, though it's certainly inspirational. I fell in love with the songs I heard on KEXP, and after another month or so of listening to The Meadowlands, full-blown wonderment blossomed. By the time the lyrics had knotted my stomach and sent shivers of recognition down my spine, I finally got to see the band live at Noise Pop in 2004. Talk about living to play! It's rare that you see a band pour so much energy and enthusiasm into a show, supposed coolness and hauteur be damned. Thus, it was with great pleasure and anticipation that I marked my calendar for two more shows from the band.
The Wrens, Bottom of the Hill, December 1, 2005: I know I've been resting on my laurels when it's been a while since I've gone to Bottom of the Hill, by far the coolest venue in the city, booking groups that go on to bigger and better. For this show, the club was packed with people who had braved the cold, blustery night to see an incredibly deserving band.
The last time the Wrens played San Francisco, Kevin Whelan had a whole bass, albeit one held together with--in addition to a wing and a prayer--lots of gaffer tape. This time, he seemed to sport an oversize, misshapen mandolin, now that entire chunks of the guitar had been lost to onstage antics. Paul mentioned that it had, for example, speared the ceiling of the Knitting Factory in New York. Julie speculated that the next time we see the band, he'll be playing a toothpick.
As usual, the band set up their own equipment, with the help of a couple of tech guys--good to see the Meadowlands profits (ha) being invested wisely. They opened with Greg Whelan and Charles Bissell onstage, playing an older song that I'm not familiar with. Midway through the song, they were joined by Jerry and Kevin, the latter engulfed in a huge parka with a hood that hid much of his face. As the energy mounted, he threw it off; later in the night, a voice from the back of the room requested "more parka." The crowd was pretty noisy at the beginning, maybe because they didn't know whether soundcheck had ended, but early on in the set, when the band unfurled the eerie intro to "Happy," a respectful silence had descended. In the past, I've noted the resemblances between "Happy" and U2's "With or Without You" as well as the Chameleons' "Tears," but tonight, the Comsat Angels' "Lost Continent" was the first tune that came to mind--none of which may matter to anyone other than me, but I dig 'em all.
It's been about 18 months since I last saw the Wrens, and their show was just as powerful as I remembered. The band mostly stuck with Meadowlands favorites, reinterpreting a few. For example, "Boys You Won't" got the now customary audience participation treatment, whereas Jerry didn't sing on "House that Guilt Built" for this outing. Kevin retold the story about Bottom of the Hill's legendary booking agent, Ramona, and how she was the only person who gave them a chance 10 years ago. If they continue to play Bottom of the Hill solely for the sake of nostalgia or gratitude, I'll be a happy girl.
Though the Wrens are emphatically a band--that is, they share vocal duties, none of the members seem like prima donnas, and they don't seem to take directions from a ringleader--it's hard not to single out Kevin Whelan. He's the one jumping up and down, threatening the audience with his guitar, and generally pumping up the crowd. Also, in my humble opinion, he has the best voice in the band. Tonight, he piggybacked on one of their tech guys, and within the span of about a minute, the two had somehow managed to turn him around so that Kevin flipped over the tech's head and was laid gently on his back on the tiny stage. (Think Cirque du Soleil, Jersey style.)
We missed the first band, Pale Pacific, also a 10-year-old band, though from the Washington state. Instead, we arrived just in time to see the Rum Diary, though I didn't realize who they were until the end of their set. You can hear some nods to Grandaddy in their sound, but they're a little too emo for my tastes.
The Wrens, Slim's, December 2, 2005: It's easy to cite today's ADD as a reason for the music industry's slide, but you wouldn't have guessed it Friday, judging by the crowd that came out to see the band "promoting" a 2-year-old album that proliferated mainly due to good word of mouth in the first place. Shockingly, my cousin came to the show, based on what she had heard from me and her coworker. The dear McCormicks also joined the party. Yay!
Slim's can't hold a candle to Bottom of the Hill for many reasons, but fortunately, it's bigger and less claustrophobic, and it means that more people are hearing the band's music. The show opened with Charles and Greg again, though they went with "This Boy Is Exhausted," one of more glaring omissions from the night before. In the Kevin Antics Department, he managed to climb atop one of the amps and jump down to the stage; he also mentioned that it was his 36th birthday and thanked the audience for making it the best one ever. In terms of music, though, Greg took the lead vocals for "Thirteen Grand," and they did a rousing version of "Napiers" during the encore. Alas, they didn't do "Ex-Girl Collection" over the course of the two shows, even though they had put in a good attempt last year.
Overall, this show was looser and jokier, whereas the night before had been more intense. I'd see a full week of Wrens shows if I could, but unfortunately, this was the end of the line for now. I hope they come back sooner rather than later.
Again, we missed the first opener, but we saw the set by Parchman Farm, a local band that has been getting some buzz. Their lead singer is the guy who used to be in another local band, Mover. Even an '80s girl like me could tell they borrowed heavily from Led Zeppelin's sound and '70s style in general. Make of that what you will.