The Wrens - rock & roll's ultimate underdogs - affirm their place with an incendiary live show.
On Friday, November 20, the Wrens played the Black Cat in Washington DC. After a teasingly fragmentary new song, they played a radically rearranged version of "This Boy Is Exhausted", then went on to prove that they were anything but.
The atmosphere was celebratory. The Wrens have always enjoyed a close and passionate relationship with their fans, and the combination of the band's 20th anniversary and the possibility of a new album sometime in the foreseeable future ratcheted up the level of excitement. The band responded with an incredible, sweat-drenched set that featured nearly everything off The Meadowlands, a few old chestnuts, and a smattering of new material. I've seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 rock and country concerts, and I can't remember the last time I saw a band so joyful, energetic, or obviously in love with what they do. "Unbelievable" barely describes it.
"This Boy Is Exhausted" started off with guitarist and singer Charles Bissell stripping the song's framework down to a one-chord loop for the verses, while he and fellow guitarist Kevin Whelan periodically coaxed strange shrieking noises from their strings. The rest of the band joined in on the second chorus, finally releasing the tension arising from hearing the familiar and anthemic song in such a strange new context. Other rearrangements were less drastic, but still effective. Set closer "What's a Girl" (from 1993's Silver) was built up into a towering rocker, while "Hopeless" became a cathartic singalong, with bassist/vocalist Greg Whelan directing the crowd without a microphone for the first two verses. This was in marked contrast to their treatment of "Happy" earlier in the evening. The song is already brilliant in the way the music builds in intensity as the lyrics trace the arc of heartbreak from fragility to bile to a kind of acceptance, but live, it's a transformative experience. The beginning of the song was hushed to the point where the crowd seemed afraid to sing along, lest they drown out the band. The gradual but constant crescendo from the original was twice as powerful in this context, and by the time they had worked up to the "Don't kid yourself / It's better this way / It's all back to me" sendoff and instrumental finale, everyone I could see was shredding their larynxes along with the band.
Elsewhere, the Wrens indulged in some lighthearted treatment of their back catalogue. After playing "The House That Guilt Built" and thus priming the audience for the slow build of "Happy" (which follows it on the record), they instead kicked into "Per Second Second", easily the most raucous moment on The Meadowlands. For sheer what-the-hell playfulness, though, it's hard to top Greg pulling a thirteen-year-old kid out of the front row to stab at a piano key throughout "This Is Not What You Had Planned".
The Wrens also unveiled a handful of new songs, presumably intended for the mythical, long-awaited follow-up to The Meadowlands. Introducing the show was a short song built around piano, ethereal guitar noises, and the repeated phrase "You won't see me again" -- a minimalist opener in the tradition of "The House That Guilt Built" or "Propane". Other new songs included "Leaves Ground", a wispy, delicate ballad in the vein of "Thirteen Grand", and "Get Out", a charging, piano-based rocker that started as a two-chord minor vamp and built to a frenzied jam. Greg Whelan cautioned that the new material is still being developed, and arrangements or titles might change dramatically before official studio versions see the light of day (which may be just as well; according to the setlist, the opening song was called "Whammy Song", which sort of undermines its more tender qualities). Even in their embryonic forms, however, these songs packed the same punch as the older material, even without the benefit of familiarity. They hint at a rewarding future for what is already one of the best rock 'n' roll bands in the world. Here's hoping they're around for another 20 years.