Live Review: The Wonder Years at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, NY

Once known for their raucously anti-suburban anthems and untamed, feverish post-collegiate angst, The Wonder Years have proven time and time again to be a band that grows with its audience, maturing alongside fans while keeping alive the ember of heart-wrenching honesty and candidness that make their sound so deeply personal and raw.

This past September, the band released Burst and Decayan acoustic reimagining of selections from their discography, from Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing’s “Coffee Eyes” to No Closer to Heaven’s “Cardinals”. Alongside this release, they also announced a fifteen date tour, playing an entirely acoustic set at various intimate venues across the United States. On October 8th, 2017, they played not one but two shows at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, NY.

The show I attended was entirely new territory for me: a pop-punk matinee.

With doors opening at noon and the show slated to end by five, the small basement of Le Poisson Rouge never fully filled. With its odd set times, the show, unlike its late evening successor at the same venue, did not even sell out. Instead, fans were treated to a more relaxed, intimate setting for the show. A wide set semi-circle curved around the stage and waited patiently for the openers to take the stage. At around 2:00 P.M., the first opener, the energetic, big-hearted Ohio-based Jetty Bones took the stage.

The band is fronted by Kelc Galluzzo, whose highlighter-toned hair is a fitting match for her onstage energy. She admitted to the crowd that it was her first time ever using a wireless microphone on stage and this was clearly liberating, allowing her to jump manically around the stage without fear of getting tangled in a mess of wires. There is a clear camaraderie, a real sense of friendship, that unites the members of Jetty Bones and that connection clearly made its way through the crowd, with Galluzzo offering the audience nothing but kindness and cheer, inviting us to stop by the merch table and talk after the set. Jetty Bones was the perfect band to start off as a opener for The Wonder Years; fast, buoyant, and nothing short of heartfelt, the group ignited something within the crowd.

Their strength as emerging artists burst through particularly in “No Lover” and “Clear Honey,” two of my personal favorite tracks off their incredibly strong new EP, Old WomenWhen Jetty Bones left the stage, there was a sort of electricity in the room that was absent moments before as we all shifted from leg to leg, sick of standing, sick of waiting. I felt my heart swelling and tears welling within their set, a winning combination in preparation for a band like the Wonder Years.

There was a slight drop-off in energy when the second opener, The Obsessives, took the stage shortly thereafter. Far more driven by Weezer-esque monotones and mellower rhythms, The Obsessives were a far-cry from the band that had taken the stage just moments before in both sound and stage presence. The band is entirely echoes of nineties rock with staccato jolts of pop influence. Like Jetty Bones, however, it’s entirely evident that the members of the Washington, D.C.-native band love one another as much as they love performing; often, between songs, they’d lay on the floor as they tore through riff after riff, just jamming in front of the audience.

Frontman Nick Bairatchnyi deadpanned as he explained he was about to cover a favorite song before tearing into Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” an eerie Pixies-ness to it that made the track sound simultaneously unsettling and hilarious. Though I was not the biggest fan of their set, their two strongest tracks, “Surfer Rosa” and “It’s Okay If” were both off of their new self-titled EP.

In what may have been the quickest stage-changes I have ever seen, The Wonder Years took their seats, walking onto the stage in a decidedly unceremonious single-file. It was simple, it was beautiful, and before we could even comprehend the closeness of this space, the soft strumming and balanced rhythm of “Dismantling Summer” filled the room.

The Wonder Years featuring the Little Kruta String Quartet at Le Poisson Rouge, 10/08/17. Photo: Alanna McAuliffe

Hearing The Wonder Years in this new light, soft and slow, was absolutely beautiful. The band’s seventeen song setlist was well-selected and varied. Shortly after the introductory track, frontman Dan Campbell laughed a bit and asked how the crowd felt about the mellower sound, joking how it was a complete risk to take tracks that people knew and loved (and loved to scream along to) and rework them in an entirely different way. In response, the audience glowed, letting Campbell know that this venture into uncertainty was very well received.

As “Local Man Ruins Everything” began to play, I could feel the energy in the crowd swell, balancing their desire to defiantly shout the chorus with the softness of the room. By the time tracks like “No Closer to Heaven,” “Don’t Let Me Cave In,” and “Madelyn,” began to play, however, there was a tangible emotional current running through the room, the acoustic set allowing us to hear every word the sometimes garbled Campbell was saying. the quiet almost disquieting. I saw couples leaning into one another, tears streaming down faces, swaying. I heard voices raised, shouting lyrics back, singing along like their lives depended on. The sentiment was clear; these were the songs of our adolescence, the songs of our current lives, the songs that healed us, the songs that made us feel less alone. And there we were, side by side, unified by these lyrics, by every strum and snare.

The band also played a shimmering cover of Fountains of Wayne’s “Hey Julie,” a sing-a-long friendly ditty about the trials of nine-to-five and the comfort of having someone to love waiting at home before sending the crowd wild by introducing “Living Room Song”. The track, driven by gang vocals and in-sync clapping, was clearly a fan favorite, the audience following every beat of the song, slowed down just enough to need slight adjustment, demanding a bit more attention to every sound. These moments were light, lively in a concert where raw emotion reigned; during “Cardinals,” for instance, the band asked the crowd to sing the echo of “We’re no saviors if we can’t save our brothers” as Campbell led the song.

What was perhaps most interesting about this show was how Campbell was able to interact with the crowd. Last year, in October of 2016, I saw The Wonder Years on their fall tour at Webster Hall. There was little time for sentimentality as the band ripped through tracks fast and loud. But here, Campbell was able to thank the crowd from the bottom of his heart. His personality shining through, he thanked the Wonder Years fan-base for being empathic, kind, and understanding in a world that is often driven by self-interest and cruelty. His humor also hit home, joking how a couple had asked him to release the acoustic version of “You In January” to them before Burst and Decay dropped as he “screamed an awful lot” in the original version. The crowd loved it. The band, seated and relaxed, felt at ease, invested, present; there was no room for distance.

The strongest moments of their set, however, came after they had walked off and shortly thereafter walked back on for their encore. The final two songs of the set, “Passing Through a Screen Door” and “Cigarettes and Saints”, were delivered gorgeously, with plenty of love, care, eloquence, and expression. These songs, so wrought with anguish and fear, really struck a nerve with the crowd.

As in the entirety of their set, The Wonder Years again reminded us what exactly music can do and how taking the time to slow down, to play it soft and low, can really force you to hear the heartbeat in every melody.

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