The Wrens + Constantines

by Timothy G. Merello

24 March 2004


The Wrens + Constantines

12 Mar 2004: Logan Square Auditorium — Chicago

A self-styled rock writer I dare lose my street cred by admitting the following: I went to see the Wrens knowing little more than the hype around their Meadowlands release and its seven year gestation. The folklore went as far to tell me that Wrens were brilliant popsters nearly dumped into the dustbin of indie rock due to label disputes. But that’s where my knowledge stopped. In truth, initially the opening act Constantines were the bigger draw.

Having lately found myself at shows like British Sea Power, the Walkmen, and the aforementioned Constantines, where the mad buzz of rock and roll was served with heaping helpings of fresh faced youthful exuberance, I was happy to see that the Wrens were a bunch of seasoned blokes still capable of bringing the noise.

While lead singer and bassist Kevin Whelan noodled some spacey organ fills, lead guitarist Charles Bissell chimed some high twangy riffs, tweaking and twiddling knobs. Was this the start of the show? The spacey, extemporaneous jam quickly led to a full-on adrenaline overdose as Whelan switched to bass and he and drummer Jerry Macdonnell kicked out a furious, frantic beat on which Bissell and rhythm guitarist Greg Whelan layered shards of screeching guitar. Whelan leapt about the stage, bouncing and pogoing with a frenzy, throttling his bass and mike stand while he screamed and sang feverishly.

I wondered: do the Wrens whip it like this every night? It was non-stop energy, pure passionate emotion backing up the hype surrounding the stories of pop masterstrokes.How could the audience not be but taken with the pure pandemonium of the Wrens as they bashed out big, bold, pogoing rock and roll?

Bissell’s slanted, angular guitar riffs stamped “Per Second Second” with an artful flair while Whelan’s rhythm guitar reverberated in echoing and eddying waves. Segueing to the rallying, anthemic “Everyone Chooses Sides”, the Wrens continued their blazing auditory assault of thundering beats and earnest rhythms. Further feats of fury came with the buoyant new wavey group sing along of “Faster Gun” propelled by Bissell’s sheets of guitar and Kevin Whelan’s popping snapping bass.

One of the sweetest moments of the set came when drummer Macdonnell abandoned his kit to play the recorder on “Won’t Get Too Far”, where the mood became soft with the slow strum of the guitar, the gentle weep of the recorder and the lightly hushed harmony vocals.

I may have said it already, but let’s reiterate: the Wrens are a refreshing site, a band of brothers joyously creating a world of pop and rock licks, tasty sweet and tangy. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for their next opus. ***

The first time I saw the Constantines they were opening for fellow Canadians, the Weakerthans. That night I was duly impressed, convinced that the Constantines blend of proto punk, nervy and agitated rock and roll was in fact greater than the headliners buoyant power punk. Clearly the sea of people crowding the spacious junior high gym meets ballroom of the vintage Logan Square Auditorium held similar sentiments. The Constantines held court over what seemed like a hipster’s spring dance or mixer as they blared blasts of stop time avant punk.

Despite the venues challenging acoustics, the radiance of the Constantines shone with its twin guitar skronk and strum, the nervy punch of the keyboards, the staccato drum assault and the bass heavy barrel rolls. Much ink has been spilled in efforts to compare the Constantines to Fugazi filtered through Springsteen. If pressed a listener could distill the spirits of Gang of Four and Wire on the careening guitar rhythms of “National Hum”. Do you want to connect the dots to Joe Strummer? Easily done as lead singer Bryan Webb’s husky, sandpaper growl rings with the former’s righteous rancor.

Truthfully though, the comparisons render themselves moot as the sound is uniquely the Constantines’, a sheer jolt of impassioned rock and roll cobbled together by a group of friends who relish the chance to bash their hearts out night after night for an audience thirsty for the deep draught of punk’s elixir. Witness the bobbing heads and dancing bodies as the band roared through the beating, pulsing, and hypnotizing “Young Lions”. There was a palpable buzz in the room as the boys threw themselves headlong into the maelstrom of their strangling guitar licks and fervent beats.

Whether it was the stop and start fuzz guitar of “Nighttime/Anytime” of the laconic, bluesy voodoo lurch of “Insectivora”, the Constantines held the audience in rapt awe culminating with an inspired version of “Shine a Light”. Here was a fever dream, a sweaty hallucinatory hiss of angry guitars, whirring organs, and bombastic drums. The music raged and roiled then dropped to a hum as every member of the band raised both hands into the air, punctuating the silence as soon the entire audience also raised their hands in unison, like some punk rock revival. Satisfied the Constantines then crashed back into the shouts and strums of “Shine a Light” leaving the crowd struck blind like Saul in the desert.

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