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The Greatest Generation World Tour At Best Buy Theater, Thursday, April 17th, 2014, Reviewed

Silent as the Pastor reads the eulogy

Silent as the Pastor reads the eulogy

During a Q&A with the Wonder Years lead singer Soupy Campbell earlier this week, Mary Magpie asked him the significance of a small penknife in one of his lyrics. Soupy replied: “Oh, I literally have a small knife on my bed stand. It’s from when we went to the redwood forest; I really wanted something made out of redwood, so I got a knife.  It’s good for opening packages, and stabbing intruders.”

This matters because it goes to the heart of this young, working class, personal well past solipsism rock band. Campbell’s poetics are works of imagery not metaphor. His words are so very very subjective and they are real acts of dramatic license (he names one song after Salinger), they wind their way through American highways and Pennsylvanian bedrooms of the young, poor and unemployed and at Best Buy Theater his audience, his greatest generation, responded to him as though he was a conquering hero; one of them only more so, and they sang and they screamed for him and the four guitar one bass and drums shattering power punk of the Wonder Years. It was a myth weaving 75 minutes of pop punk, actually emo but whatever, and Soupy knew it. He could feel it.

Entering the stage to screams of joy from the teens filling the sold out Best Buy, the Wonder Years were relentlessly impressive with even Soupy’s constant commentary unable to derail the straight ahead guitar rock momentum and instant community. But what are they singing?  “You’re just trying to read but I’m always standing in your light. You’re just trying to sleep but I always wake you up to apologize. I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times.” Uh?

Here is  one of the Wonder Years quandary, they seem to singing anthems about, well, about stuff that don’t make sense as anthems. The self-loathing of the first song of the set, “There There” quoted above?  The song ends with the payoff line to end all pay off lines, “I’m awkward and nervous” and we are just beginning. With an audience more Wonder Bread then Wonder Year, and a voice with a harsh undercurrent and a beard like a latter dead Moses, Campbell is leading his fans somewhere but it isn’t where you expect him to be going. He is singing dense lyrics telling real stories about his life and yet he is speaking for young people.  It seems strange, it seems like he shouldn’t be doing it, yet the attraction is obvious once you see it up close.

Musically, the Wonder Years claim Blink 182 and the Get Up Kids as antecedents. The Get Up Kids were easily my favorite favorite emo band and Blink 182, at the beginning, were pretty terrific as well. You can hear echoes of both bands in their rough and tumble attack. TWY share the rock bedrock of these bands (it goes back as far as the Buzzcocks at the very least) and they know how to make you fall into their clean tight rock. If TWY had more melodic capabilities they would be huge. Of the four “Pop Punk” bands that opened for them, both Modern Baseball and Fireworks write better songs better though they don’t write them as well; Soupy reaches places these other bands don’t ever get to through an intense mirroring of himself in the eyes and the ears of his fans. ,  but he doesn’t write great melodies. He gets his songs to stick through verbal and guitar hooks. You can’t whistle even his best songs the way you can whistle Fireworks genius “Sing God Only Knows At My Funeral”.

TWY are  poetic, subjective and direct: they are really about presenting themselves as a story of 21st Century working class young in a battle to grow up with their dignity in tact. Campbell’s story is mesmerizing: he is a kid, heart broken, alone, sleeping on friends sofas with just a backpack and a pen and a gift for words (he once released a book of poems with an album) and word for word, heart break for heart break, he rebuilt himself into this figurehead of can do-ness. Fireworks said “when you are at your lowest, when you have nothing, you always have your music and you can play your favorite songs, they will always be there for you” but Wonder Years personify it -the songs, his worries, his embarrassment, his aloneness and insecurity is comfort for kids at their lowest. He is so direct he is too direct.  This is the meaning of a generation which seems defined not by action, not by war, but by inaction, by product, by the economy and social media: by a generation looking at the down side of the greatest generation begun when the US won the second world war.  The Wonder Years are from the industrial town of Lansdale, a place 85% white, a densely populated suburban area once a center of industry and now a center of the Kugel Ball…

Let me try this another way: The Wonder Years are the leaders of “Pop Punk”, they have a real and deep attachment to their fanbase, they sold out Best Buy, a couple of thousand teenagers have been singing stuff like: “I bet I’d be a fucking coward. I bet I’d never have the guts for war, ‘Cause I can’t spend another month away from here. These frantic rest stop phone calls don’t get answered anymore. But I, I wanted to know if I could please come home. So let me know.” And their latest album, the masterful The Greatest Generation sold less than 20,000 copies. Now do you get it? DO YOU SEE??

The Wonder Years are explosive on stage, Soupy can dance a storm and at the start of a song he jumps so high he seems to levitate then drops on to the floor and twirls round and round one mic in his hand and the other in the stand. The  other members of the band are Nick Steinborn, Josh Martin, Matt Brasch, Casey Cavaliere and Mike Kennedy but they are backing guys, Campbell is all focal point. The band is tight and succinct, their instincts are pop and only at the end of the evening do they let the sound unwind.  Their set was a very well paced victory lap with deep cuts like “Me Vs The Highway” building through the single “Dismantling Summer” (dedicated to Soupy’s Grandfather) all the way to “I Just Want To Sell Out My My Funeral”. The set was a jet propelled streamlined wonder and all five bands were great. Modern Baseball should be big if they can dump the stupid band name, Real Friends are more emo than power pop and Citizen may well be grunge. Fireworks are a great band, in some ways they are better than the Wonder Years but they just don’t have the vision of a Campbell. The bands included no women whatsoever, though the audience had quite a few girls, with their cells and their shorts over tights and boys with their beards and their hoodies. No parents (it was an over 16 show), and I was well and above the oldest people there. If it was a generation thing, it was a limited generation thing: they seemed, like the Wonder Years themselves, defined by the things they aren’t: not urban, not cutting edge, no tats, no tude, close knit, peaceful even in the moshpit.

And the songs these bands are the same way. No blues at all, no r&b or soul, no hip hop. But no sexism either, the bands are lost in romantic hurdles and aloneness, work ethics and breakthroughs. Their stage clothes are the same as the street clothes, their idea of stage decor is a painting of The Greatest Generation album cover art. Soupy’s sense of wonder at having his name and face staring down from a Billboard on 42nd street is entirely palpable. It is real. On an upward trajectory since 2005, this is the Wonder Years at the height of their career. What does it all mean? It is the myth of the greatest generation, of the past building to the future building to the end:

Clear the apartment.
I plan on collapsing and I could have sworn I heard a car door slam.
I’m stuck at the corner of grinding teeth and stomach acid,
All alone under a soft rain and streetlamp.
I spent my life weighed down by a stone heart,
Drowning in irony and settling for anything.
Somewhere down the line all the wiring went faulty.
I’m scared shitless of failure and I’m staring out at where I wanna be.

I just want to sell out my funeral.
I just want to be enough for everyone.
I just want to sell out my funeral.
Know that I fought until the lights were gone.

I’m walking through harbors and churchyards.
I felt the snow crack under my feet.
I’ll stay thankful for mild winters, for every shot I got at anything.
I’ll blame the way that I was brought up or the flaws that I was born with
Or the mistakes that I’ve made; they’re all just fucking excuses.
So bury me in the memories of my friends and family.
I just need to know that they were proud of me.

I just want to sell out my funeral.
I just want to be enough for everyone.
I just want to sell out my funeral.
Know that I fought until the lights were gone.

Oh, we all wanna know.
Where’d the American dream go?
Did you give up and go home?
Am I here alone?
Oh, when the credits roll,
I’ll watch as the screen glows;
The moments when I choked, all the fears that I’ve outgrown.
At least I hope so.

I was just happy to be a contender.
I was just aching for anything.
And I used to have such steady hands
But now I can’t keep ’em from shaking.

Oh I’m sorry I…
I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times.
Is this what it feels like with my wings clipped?
I’m awkward and nervous.
I’m awkward and nervous.
I’m awkward and nervous.
I’m awkward and nervous.

But I was kind of hoping you’d stay.
I was kind of hoping you’d stay.
I was kind of hoping you’d stay.
I need you to stay.
Oh, god, could you stay?
I need you to stay.
I need you to stay.
I need you.

If I’m in an airport and you’re in a hospital bed,
Well then, what kind of man does that make me?
If I’m in an airport and you’re in a hospital bed,
Well then, what kind of man does that make me?
If I’m in an airport, if I’m in an airport
What kind of man does that make me?
What kind of man does that make me?
What kind of man does that make me?

I know how it feels to be at war with a world that never loved me.
(I know how it feels to be at war with a world that never loved me)
All we had were hand me-downs.
(I know how it feels to be at war with a world that never loved me)
All we had was good will.

Two blackbirds on a highway sign
Are laughing at me here with my wings clipped.
I’m staring up at the sky
But the bombs keep fucking falling.
There’s no devil on my shoulder;
He’s got a rocking chair on my front porch
But I won’t let him in.
No, I won’t let him in.

‘Cause I’m sick of seeing ghosts
And I know how it’s all gonna end.
There’s no triumph waiting.
There’s no sunset to ride off in.
We all want to be great men
And there’s nothing romantic about it.
I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given.

Grade: A-

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