LIVE: The Wonder Years / Muncie Girls / The Dirty Nil @ The Hippodrome, Kingston

By Leo Troy

Pop punk shows are an equaliser. It’s impossible to judge anyone based on superficial things like social status when you’re four beers deep, arm around a stranger screaming your favourite band’s lyrics right back at them. These shows are communal therapy of sorts, but due to the unshakeable stigma of hometown-hating teenage emotions, pizza, skate parks and happy guitars, its a scene that often elicits ironic sneers, usually from insecure Pitchfork fans. That’s where The Wonder Years come in. Despite being unashamedly pop punk, there’s something grown up about them, an intangible fourth dimension to their musical canvas propelled by frontman Dan ’Soupy’ Campbell’s confessional lyrics about mundane suburban twenty-something existence, more Allen Ginsberg than Tom Delonge. This is mirrored in their visibly nervous fans, mostly bearded men in their twenties, who after filtering into Kingston’s gorgeous Hippodrome for a Sunday night pop punk party, each grabbing two beers from the bar and ambling to the floor to drink them.

First up are The Dirty Nil, who explode onto the cosy stage with all the pomp of an arena band. Opener ‘No Weaknesses’ sounds positively huge, as do other cuts from the band’s stellar debut ‘Higher Power,’ – ‘Zombie-Eyed’ and ‘Wrestle Yu To Husker Du.’ Bassist Ross Miller delights the crowd with tongue-in-cheek stage banter, more than once bellowing ‘Rock & Roll’ in between spidery stage movements reminiscent of Pete Townshend, while loud-shirted frontman Luke Bentham is all cheekbones and bubblegum, melodic vocals shredding through the mix with the genuine swagger of a future star. By the time the trio close on a brilliant cover of Cheap Trick’s ’Surrender’ everyone in the relatively sparse crowd is won over and itching for more.

More comes in the form of Muncie Girls, who mosey onto stage with effortless cool and launch into their super-melodic nuggets with an exact balance of 90s aloofness and heartfelt sincerity. Frontwoman Lande Hekt makes the performance feel integral, introducing important political and societal song subjects then vocally enunciating every golden lyric. In essence their by-the-numbers indie punk backing is nothing more than a vehicle for Hekt’s message, but it’s a message delivered with such conviction and brilliant wisdom that the overall package is enthralling throughout, peaking during an electrifying ‘Committee,’ a perfect precursor to the headliners.

Somehow The Wonder Years still feel like underdogs. Maybe it’s because they’re familiar, like close friends who’ve confided in you, or maybe it’s the fact that it always seems like they’re accomplishing something, overcoming amorphous odds stacked against them. Tonight, everyone’s favourite Philly six piece thunder through a rare off-cycle show. Rust would be expected but low and behold they haven’t missed a beat. Opener ’Local Man Ruins Everything’ sends previously static fanatics into a word-for-word whirlwind of scream along hysteria and the band quickly get in the zone. Soupy is on peak form, his vocal projection echoing Adam Duritz from Counting Crows: Cathartic, authentic and technically flawless. The setlist equally pulls from the last three albums so most fans are happy. Cuts from No Closer To Heaven sound the best, utilising their unique triple guitar attack with dynamic tact. However it’s songs from The Greatest Generation that elicit the loudest crowd responses. Case in point: ‘Dismantling Summer’s heartbreaking “If i’m in an airport” middle eight gets even louder when reprised at the end of the set during a spine tingling rendition of mini rock opera ‘I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral.’ Then as usual, one more blast of angst in the form of ‘Came Out Swinging’ brings the whole thing to a close.

As the lights burst on, those same fans that entered the building visibly nervous are beaming. That is precisely why The Wonder Years are a special band. Their shows aren’t so much shows as opportunities for fans to vicariously purge emotional clutter through their songs. It is a communal experience like no other in pop punk, and that’s why they, more than any other band in the genre are an equaliser. Whoever you are, they cater to you, because just like you, they’re human.

Leo Troy