The Wrens at Schubas

This was one of those nights when you find yourself thinking, “Is this group playing in front of me at this little club the best rock band in the world?” The Wrens are certainly up there on the list of best live bands, and they were in fine, fine form tonight. Few other groups can build such a sense of drama as they go from quiet moments (a little flick on the guitar strings or the soft beat of a shaker) to rampaging rock. You can also sense the camaraderie and playfulness of these guys. Bassist/keyboardist/singer Kevin Whelan is a nutcase on stage, with a ton of reckless energy that includes jumping (or falling) into the crowd… When he came back onstage for the encore he leaped over the keyboard, hitting his foot on the keys with a clunk and then tumbled onto the floor. As he said, “If you want polish, go see a Maroon 5 concert.” I’ll stick with the Wrens, thank you.

The Wrens at the Norris University Center

FEB. 10, 2006
at the Norris University Center, Evanston

The Norris University Center on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus ranks high on the list of the crappiest venues where I’ve ever seen a rock concert… but sometimes, the most memorable shows happen in these out-of-the-way and less-than-ideal places. The Wrens showed that the limitations of a venue are no obstacle to performing a great rock concert.

The lighting was abysmal — super dark for most of the show, ultra bright for one song played with the house lights one. (See above photo.) The limited lighting prompted Kevin Whelan of the Wrens to remark sarcastically, “What the hell kind of rock show is this?” And while the sound was pretty bad during the very little bit of the opening bands that I caught (I walked in as the last of three opening bands was finishing up), it wasn’t too bad for the Wrens, at least from where I was standing, up near the stage.

While the Wrens have their share of loud rock songs, some of the most remarkable moments came when the room got very, very quiet for the songs played on piano or with just a few notes on the guitar. You could hear the unamplified clicking noise Greg Whelan was making with a little percussion device in the palm of his hand on one song.

The Wrens mostly played songs from The Meadowlands, their last and most familiar album. (This concert was also a great chance to buy their early, out-of-print CDs over at the merch table.) The crowd, mostly college students, knew these songs well and gave the Wrens a very appreciative response. Watching Kevin Whelan leap around the stage and ham it up is truly entertaining.

The Wrens are an interesting live band. Their songs sounded as if they’d been broken down into the simplest of building blocks. At times, a guitar riff or percussion part sounded a little out of synch or a bit off, but then when the rest of the music kicked in, it was exactly right.

Kudos to the student organization NiteSkool for booking this show.