ARTS

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January 23, 2004

Wrens: good while a little rusty

Let's face it: I'm not in the U.K. anymore. When I opened my mouth to inquire about the show delay this past Saturday—the Wrens' van broke down on its way to Schuba's—no one turned his head to ask me if I was from the U.S. after telling me about his hometown outside of London. No one sexily informed me that Domino Records was selling all sorts of CDs and records from their catalog in the back corner. Nope. I was hardly responded to, just ushered into a line stretching out into the bitter cold. Where I stood. By myself. Knowing that no alcohol would warm my belly anytime soon. No pints for me. I was at the 18+ show; the show that would be abbreviated to keep the 10 p.m., 21+ show on schedule.

Circumstance can play a role in the enjoyment of a concert. If while waiting for the bus to London's Astoria, my friend demonstrates the "white-boy boogie" that I implore him not to try out at Belle & Sebastian, I'm already predisposed to have a good time. And likewise, if I go to a bar with Spiritualized following their show at the Vic, it's hard to separate that from my reaction to the show. So already this wasn't looking good.

Because of the delay, the opening act, Architecture, a five-piece rock outfit from Chicago, began their set as the line filtered in. One of the better opening acts I've seen, they mostly served as a point of judgment for the Wrens. Their faces were still fairly young, none of them with thinning hair or weathered hands. As if to mark a transition, a grizzly older man in attendance lent a helping hand to Architecture as they cleared their equipment off the stage.

The Wrens have a nuanced 14-year history, including time spent with the label that would later become home to none other than Creed; un-rock star lives in Secaucus, New Jersey; marriages; and children. The term "rock veterans" usually assumes some sort of success or attention that makes it all worthwhile. But for these four men, veteran status is the butt of their jokes. Their most recent release on Absolutely Kosher, The Meadowlands, was met with accolades from The New York Times, Magnet Magazine, and Chicago's Internet publication Pitchforkmedia.com. As a result of this relative media frenzy for four old dudes from New Jersey, The Meadowlands' precursor Secaucus has become nearly impossible to find online. The copy of Secaucus I picked up at the show had different, lower-quality cover art. It reminded me of the production level of my friends' bands. Only they don't get to play at Schuba's to two sold-out crowds.

Once on the stage, the four of them displayed a rapport you would expect from old college buddies that get back together every few years to practice because they used to be in a band together. Of course, the fact that they outright addressed this may have made it more noticeable. Lead singer Kevin Whelan, who often traded off vocals with Charles Bissell, apologized for his band's apparent lack of organization and attributed it to their road troubles. Standing beside Whelan just for this song, Jerry MacDonnell helped harmonize the aptly placed "The House that Guilt Built." Track 1 off The Meadowlands, the song set the tone for their show as they softly sang, "It's been so long since you've heard from me. I've got a wife and kid that I never see. And I'm nowhere near what I dreamed I'd be. I can't believe what life's done to me." Opposing the slow lead-in, they followed up with two faster-paced songs from the same album, including "Everyone Chooses Sides," which pounces on points of frustration: low-end jobs, relationship woes, and recording troubles. With beads of sweat forming on his face following much jumping, Whelan related to the enraptured gathering, "Thank you. Oh my God, that was hard." But it appeared effortless.

The slow and deliberate crescendo of "Happy" was so quiet I could hear the clumsy bartender, glass on glass, from the other room. It's about as emo as the Wrens get, with lines like, "You don't even want to touch me," and "Is this why you wanted me to watch as you walk away?" It's just a relationship song. There are countless songs just like it. But it was a little different to see it coming from a thirtysomething. The way Whelan's mouth formed around each of the words, so careful and precise, created the sense that he was saying it to one person. At the same time, the song is so sparse in its narrative that it seemed as though he probably said the same things, felt the same things, so many times because he lived those countless years that lie before me. In such literal closeness to his experience, I had no choice but to feel naïve. When I sang along, the words were empty.

That didn't stop any of us from singing as they brought in some tunes from Secaucus during the second half of their set. They shot through "Faster Gun" and poked their way through the more even-paced, very teenaged "I've Made Enough Friends." They lied and said that the keyboard-infused "Indie 500" would be their last for the evening, but it was only their tenth song. Resentment of the 21+ crowd that would get a longer set started to hit me again, but then I watched intently as Whelan planted himself in front of the keyboard.

I'm not sure how to describe his keyboard playing except to say that it rivaled Ephram Brown's. Now it might sound ridiculous to make a comparison between a real musician and a fictional character on the fabulous television drama Everwood. But it's not really, because in all honesty, by the end of their respective shows, I found myself quite endeared by both. As the song swelled, he turned the keyboard on its side, his fingers still dancing upon it as if that was the natural way to play. At one point, one of the band members had commented that their next show would be in wheelchairs, but the dexterity that I witnessed suggested otherwise. But then again, I also caught Bissell yawn mid-song.

Just before their encore, in keeping with the we-haven't-practiced-in-forever feel that pervaded the evening, Bissell said about the upcoming tune, "Yeah, I think I remember it all." But I honestly don't remember what that song was. And I'm starting to forget the negative feelings I had going into it—how I missed the unexpected British friendliness and had 21+ envy. I don't have a story to tell about the show, because it wasn't about me. Instead, I received their tale.