The Wrens: 25 July 2009 - Chicago

[19 August 2009]

By Brian McKinney

In 2003, New Jersey’s The Wrens released their critically acclaimed breakout album, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher), effectively concluding a decade of relative obscurity and label nightmares. This is neither the time nor place to expand on this, but it’s one hell of an interesting story involving two amazing LPs, label strong-arming, and Creed. To use the parlance of our times: “Google it.”

Adding to their mystique, The Wrens have released just three albums in 20 years and tour sporadically. This year they decided to forgo a tour in exchange for a two-night stand at Chicago’s 200-people capacity, Schubas Tavern. Both balmy, July shows give “sold out” a whole new meaning. Upon walking in the door you’re met by a throng of sweating, intebriated bodies. But those lucky enough to get tickets and brave enough to weather the mob are rewarded with an impassioned set of indie rock from one of the most underrated bands in the country.

Naturally, seminal Chicago poet, Thax Douglas, who has introduced hundreds of bands with original poetry, prefaces the band. After the poem, a lonely piano fills the speakers; singer/bassist/keyboardist, Greg Whelan plays the melancholic lines of “I Guess We’re Done” off 1997’s Abbot 1135 EP. Greg’s brother and guitarist, Kevin Whelan holds a cell phone up to his guitar pickup and vocals begin to spew forth from his amp like a poor (or inventive!) man’s Peter Frampton. The voice at the other end of the line, singer/guitarist, Charles Bissell takes the stage singing into his cell phone and the crowd roars with approval.

After this unique show opener, Greg introduces a “couple of people who just joined the band.” Referring to an ongoing contest called The 5th Wren, in which the band randomly selects people from email entries to join them onstage at their shows. The three 5th Wrens bang out a bunch of notes on the keyboard as the band launches into “The House That Guilt Built” from the aforementioned The Meadowlands. It’s a fitting tribute to the playful nature and strong fan connection The Wrens have developed over the years.

Oddly, the composition of the crowd at Schubas is a bit unexpected for a band with a long history of having a cult following. It’s clear from the surprising ratio of meatheads to indie kids that, through no fault of their own, The Wrens have developed a strong mass appeal. Many of the concertgoers look as if they’d be more appropriate at a Linkin Park concert. What’s even more shocking is that these guys know all the words (to the poppier songs) and are amazingly participatory crowd-members. As one message board-poster wrote after the show, “Though the bro-tient was a bit high… it was also one of the only concerts I’ve been to where the audience would clap on-beat and sustain it until musically appropriate moments, rather than trailing off pathetically once they lost the count after ten seconds.” Apparently rhythm is a side effect of hours of frat-house Guitar Hero sessions.

During the course of the one-and-a-half hour exhibition, The Wrens pull a mix of old and new tunes out of their bag, including the fashionable “Everyone Choose Sides”, “Faster Gun”, and “Boys, You Won’t Remember”, much to the delight of the crowd. When the audience pogos along with the band, Schubas’ floor undulates under their collective mass. The boys from NJ close out the regular set with the elegiac, “Hopeless”, Charles crooning, “Go find someone who wants you / Someone to pray to / Get on your knees to / Lay down and please you too / It just won’t ever be me again.”

Always the showmen, The Wrens take the stage for two crowd indulging encores and bust out the agonizingly beautiful, “She Sends Kisses”, eliciting one the finest audience sing-alongs ever. Long-time fans are also rewarded with a selection off their first two albums including, “Surprise, Honeycomb” from 1996’s raucous Secaucus and “Napiers” off their equally abrasive and brilliant 1994 debut, Silver. A few new songs from a recently announced new album are also demoed and met with enthusiasm. While perhaps not the most prolific band of the last 20 years, this performance is living proof that The Wrens are one of the most important bands in music today.

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