Since their inception in a south Philly basement in 2005, The Wonder Years have gone from strength to strength with each passing release, failing to lose a trace of momentum in the process. Such drive has only intensified with the release of their sixth full length; Sister Cities. The record has been hailed unanimous by fans and critics alike to its mature take on contemporary alt-rock whilst still retaining the anxious and exposed dynamics the group have been revered for. In support for this fantastic record, the group have endeavoured on UK headline run, stopping off at Bristol’s SWX in the process.
Opening for this tour is the Los Angeles musician A.W. (7.5). Equipped with just a singular instrument and facing the sold-out mass before them, one must assume it must be daunting experience opening for a such a highly anticipated act. However, with an air of modesty and confidence, they present a safe and universally approachable sound that carries a viable amount of sonic grit and alternative aesthetics that perfectly complements the more melancholic recent work of The Wonder Years. Safe and approachable, it’s an amiable sonic breeze that still carries a surprising amount of emotion and depth despite them performing individually without the assistance of a full backing band.
Whilst many may be unsure how to approach the subject of genderqueer identities, A.W explores and documents the subject with a welcome sense of humour and humility. Performing material from their 2015 full length New Love, they perfectly represent and empower a culture and community that is often criminally overlooked within mainstream society. Whilst this may hint at a level of unrelatability with those who do not identity with queer culture, the material performed documents themes that are universally relatable and emphatic. To expand, A.W commendably explores the complexity of the human condition with an provoking sense of ambiguity. Capping off the set with the title track ‘New Love’, it’s agreeable that they have stricken a chord with those seeking empowerment. Granted, it does feel like a backing band would add additional volume to their live sound, but never the less, it’s a touching and jovial set from a musician who is undoubtedly set for an illustrious career.
Given that this run is in support for Sister Cities, one would expect to be greeted by the galloping riffs of ‘Raining Of Kyoto’. In polar contrast, The Wonder Years (10) choose to greet the people of Bristol with a welcoming acoustic set, opening with a rousing rendition of 2011’s ‘Local Man Ruins Everything before indulging the masses with ‘Dismantling Summer’. Whilst the term acoustic version may materialise images of stripped back, bare bone versions of tracks, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, each track performed within this set is re-imagined and re-arranged, adding various hints of country and folk to present an entire new entity as opposed to a stripped back cover of each song.
Whilst tracks like ‘Living Room Song’ and ‘Madelyn’ require no drastic adjustment, these re-imagined versions of ‘The Ghosts Of Right Now’ and ‘You In January’ present the emotive lyrical themes in bring new light, intensifying the human emotion running though such content. In the process pop-punk aesthetics are removed from older material and these tracks are presented in a refreshing, more mature ambience. Truly, the people of Bristol are loving it, mirroring the sheer passion and emotion being radiated from the group.
After a short intermission, the ominous strings of ‘Pyramids Of Salt’ ring out, signifying the passionate chaos that’s about to behold the venue. As the triumphant chorus blossoms, pure euphoria engulfs the room, with punters climbing upon one another in an attempt to have their voice ring the loudest. Such an air doesn’t evaporate at all, with flawless, energised performances of ‘I Don’t Like Who I Was Back Then’ and ‘Cul-De-Sac’ igniting a collective voice that soars to the rafters. Even though Sister Cities has only been available for a month or so, the breeze of ‘It Must Get Lonely’ and the dissociation of ‘We Look Like Lightning’ also receive a rapturous reception. Whilst the content from this album certainly is a contrast from their spunkier roots, such material doesn’t see the natural flow of the setlist and merely compliments their growth as musicians.
Despite all of this, and regardless of how phenomenally tight this performance is, one of the most awe-inspiring elements of this set is how everyone within this room is united as one, crying out and signing as a collective. The intoxicating amount of energy and feverish passion The Wonder Years radiate is absorbed by the sold out crowd before them and thrown back at them in full force. It’s simply magic to be involved with such an event, with smiles all round for rowdy performances of the anthemic ‘Came Out Swinging’ and ‘Devil In My Bloodstream’. Frontman Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell is on top form tonight too, serving out such classics without missing a single beat whilst revelling in the euphoria being shared between both artist and crowd.
With an extended setlist of 25 tracks spanning the majority of their history, this proves to be the ultimate The Wonder Years’ experience. Closing such a wondrous night with the soaring and goose-bump inducing trio of ‘The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me’, ‘Passing Through A Screen Door’ and ‘Cigarettes and Saints’, it’s truly hard to fathom a show of contemporary alt-rock that’s more enjoyable than this. Whilst the material present on Sister Cities may see the act explore more experimental avenues, their live show has never been more impressive and tonight officially feels like the inauguration of a new era of this band. As the crowd flow through the venue doors coated in sweat and gleaming with ecstasy, it comes to fruition that tonight has been more than simply a gig; it’s been a life affirming event.