Not even some forgettable openers can keep a well-oiled pop-rock machine like the Wombats down.
The Wombats remain somewhat of an undiscovered treasure.
They've had "hits" here in the States, although that's not really the best way to describe them. Despite a highly commercial pop-rock sound and an absolutely stunning, conversational lyricism, none of their songs have impacted the charts, instead just becoming "fan favorites" for thousands of people from all walks of life. Even in the U.K., despite their most recent (and quite excellent) album This Modern Glitch debuting at #3, their singles all did ... um, relatively well. A few Top 40 hits, but nothing ever in the chart's upper echelon. It's been both a blessing and a curse for the group, as no matter where there go, they are somewhat of a cult band, and although that may seem like a backhanded compliment at first glance, you must first consider the fact that such a following has swelled in the span of two albums over barely five years -- and that's pretty impressive no matter which way you slice it.
This whole leg of their Glitch tour (which has gone on for some time now) was to support latest single "Jump into the Fog", all while entertaining the careers of like-minded openers Flagship and the Static Jacks. Chicago's impressive mid-level venue Park West was pretty well packed, even as the openers did all they could to retain the audience's attention. Both did a fair job, but it was nothing to write home about. The Static Jacks were especially workmanlike in their performance, with every member looking out, hitting their marks, and working through each song in a fairly mechanical fashion, hitting all the right notes at all the right time but lacking any real passion behind them. Singer Ian Devaney flailed about while his bandmates stood still, thinking his wild mannerisms helped highlight the bands unique energy -- but it didn't. Jokingly mocking the headlining band also proved to be a bold (yet unsurprisingly off-putting) move. So far, the evening was off to a rather blasé start ...
Then, the Wombats took the stage.
It was a fascinating switch to behold: while the openers featured a good amount of people on stage unleashing rather average-sounding songs, the Wombats created full-bodied songs with just three members (OK, and a few select pre-loaded tracks): "Murph" on guitars and vocals, Tord Øverland-Knudsen on bass, and Dan Haggis on drums. Yet the band weren't slacking in terms of sheer musicality: each member played their own set of keyboards at one time or another, Murph in particular switching from keys to guitars in the middle of singing without as much as blinking. Opening with the tremolo'd synth chords of Glitch opener "Our Perfect Disease", the crowd got whipped up into a quick frenzy, and when the guitar break came through, the mop-topped Øverland-Knudsen literally bounded across the stage, seemingly excited as hell just to be there, hitting every fuzzed-out bass note with precision
Then, the band launched into a litany of standbys: "Moving to New York", the glorious "Walking Disasters", and -- yes -- "Jump into the Fog". Things started on a high energy note, and the people right near the lip of the stage were jumping around, having a grand ol' time. The harder edge of "Girls/Fast Cars" further added to the joyous mosh fun to be had, but it's around that time that the band began playing some of their "lesser" tunes -- consequential tracks from the first album ("Backfire at the Disco") and weaker spots from Glitch (specifically "1996", which is still a great song but kind of got lost in the midst of similar-sounding numbers with stronger hooks), culminating in a lo-fi ballad with the band huddled around the drum kit. There's always room for a good ballad at a rock show, but placing something that low-key (no drums, just plaintive guitar strums) in the middle of the group's trademark high-energy numbers really pumped the brakes on the show's momentum.
What's really sad about this middle slog was the fact that even when the songs started to blur together a bit, the band's instrumental prowess was never in question. Haggis broke out both the neck-harmonica and his own set of keys, and near the end of the show, Øverland-Knudsen swapped his bass and keys out for a standard electric, all while Murph played practically everything else, his voice spot-on, never missing a note even when switching instruments. It was a shame that the momentum died down half-way through, as you'd think the band this smart could craft a smarter, punchier setlist.
Yet once the giant inflatable ball was launched into the audience (which the crowd really, really dug), things picked up again. Some choice cuts followed (the rousing "Techno Fan", "Tokyo (Vampires and Werewolves)"), and the momentum really kicked into high gear, leaving the band to close up shop some 70 minutes after they started. It felt abrupt, but so was the reaction. Fans began cheering out for "One! More! Song!" over and over. Then, some 90 seconds after the group left, they came right back onto the stage, and knocked out an incredible two-song encore: their fan favorite ballad "Anti-D" (no tricks applied -- the group played it straight and sincere), and, of course, a particularly amped-up version of "Let's Dance to Joy Division". It was all fast guitars and wild energy, and everyone sang along to that joyous slice of pop perfection, ending the show on a perfect note.
If there was any truly great criticism about the Wombats performance (aside from the setlist), it'd be that this great band have managed to work themselves into a true machine, playing their songs cleanly and efficiently, with energy but maybe not all the passion they could (and if that sounds like a similar criticism that was levied against the Static Jacks, that's because it is -- the true difference is that the Jacks are finding their footing still, while the Wombats are so proficient at what they do that they could still knock it out of the park even if they were doing a half-assed job of it). Then again, they've been touring this album for ages, so some staleness is bound to set in. Still, when compared to their rather anemic openers and a somewhat muggy Monday night to deal with, few could've asked for such a gloriously upbeat gem of a time.