Performing in the Academy’s main room tonight is Yung Lean, whose queue pretty much wraps around the entire building. Conversely, The Wonder Years’ is about a fraction of that size, though that’s to be expected. They’re a band whose longevity have come through dedication more than mass appeal; they’ll release tremendous albums time after time, but they’re tailored more to the fans who’ll grow alongside them, rather than roping in new ones en masse. This feels like something of a celebration of that, the run supporting The Hum Goes On Forever and its great success thus far in its lifespan, with the refreshing lack of airs that often accompanies The Wonder Years’ work.
That ethos is similarly mirrored in their openers, Beauty School especially. Frontman Joe Cabrera asserts how the band’s first two years of existence were marred by the pandemic, and his clear ecstasy at finally being able to support their recent debut shows. It helps that Happiness is packed to the gills with the sort of emo anthems a crowd like this will be baying for in due time, if not completely now. It’s in that where Beauty School’s relative inexperience is present most; their crowd isn’t a bad size but it’s still patchy, and battling through some less-than-ideal mix balancing isn’t helping them either. When that’s ironed out and they hit their stride though, they about spitting distance from totally tipping the early-comers in their favour, especially with a song like Pawn Shop Jewels to underscore how rich and powerful this band can be. That song feels like the tipping point where the set clicks into place, as they proceed to rattle off their debut’s bangers that—for a new band especially—have withstood phenomenally well. With a few more road miles and name recognition, this is the standard that Beauty School can consistently look forward to.
Save Face could similarly do with that sort of honing, though it doesn’t help that they’re admittedly not among their native crowd tonight. At least not now anyway, not since their transformation into My Chemical Romance Jr (which isn’t a denigration in the slightest, FYI). With that in mind, you get the feeling that post-hardcore this frenetic and electrified from the word ‘go’ demands a more visceral reaction than it gets, but if there’s a band for whom that’d dampen their spirits, it ain’t Save Face. Vocalist Tyler Povanda makes that abundantly clear on his own, for how convulsive and frantic his overall presence is. It definitely feels like a band continuing to sever their DIY-emo roots for something grander, underlined by how the throwback to that old incarnation in Preoccupied may be more in line with this show’s vibe, but isn’t Save Face at their best. Fortunately that comes directly after it with Another Kill For The Highlight Reel, the closer that’ll undoubtedly define Save Face’s performances for years to come as easily their most definitive, energetic statement of intent. Bring that to crowd that’s more game for post-hardcore of this stripe, and Save Face will soar.
Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to make that sort of generalisation though. After all, this doesn’t come across like an audience closed off from embracing newer bands in adjacent styles; rather, the transfixion of The Wonder Years at the top of their game can be too difficult to ignore or pull away from, especially when they’re this deep into their career and pulling off masterstrokes like this. It speaks great volumes that no matter what era they’re pulling from in a set that pretty much encompasses them all, they feel like a band in their absolute prime with no sign of slowing down.
They’ve also just been dealt a really good hand here. The sound is impeccably crisp for them, particularly in Dan Campbell’s vocals that sound frankly phenomenal in how much power notably surges through. Thus, when that’s paired with the closest thing to ‘playing the hits’ as The Wonder Years have got, it’s not even a surprise when it’s anthem after anthem thrown out in immediate succession, dense but never overwhelmingly so. It helps that they’re a band whose command of fluidity and modulation, even in a live environment, rings so strong, where the delicate sways of Flowers Where Your Face Should Be or an acoustic-driven Summer Clothes serve as brief reprieves. Granted, ‘reprieve’ is very relative; it’s simply not in The Wonder Years’ nature to ease that far back, but it’s emblematic of how their brand of emo has matured over the years, without losing its draw-you-in vigour.
And if there’s one word that characterises this set, it would be ‘vigour’. Even when they carry themselves like a more experienced band as far as profile goes—ergo, no insane stage antics—this is still a punk show at the end of the day, and it’s treated accordingly. Coupled with the fact that The Wonder Years can pack multiple life-affirming scream-alongs into the same few-minute block, and they’re propelling themselves forward at borderline unassailable rates. That’s certainly the case when you get Local Man Ruins Everything and especially set centrepiece Passing Through A Screen Door, occupying a space that the band have generally moved past sonically, but never feel wheeled out through mere obligation. There’s clear elation to be airing these songs, felt in the unmistakable crackle of energy that never lets up.
Further, it’s the humanity of the whole thing that holds that up to such a high level. Make no bones about it, The Wonder Years are not rockstars, nor do they pretend to be. Instead, Campbell brings such a warm, affable presence front and centre, as he’ll mention how A Song For Ernest Hemingway is now on its ‘redemption arc’ after lukewarm receptions on its initial run, or how inequitable systems criminalising addiction and poverty need to be dismantled before Oldest Daughter. It’s the benefit of having the smaller room to themselves, where there’s something more personal and connective going on, and a communality that does a lot to elevate an already fantastic showing even further. As always, The Wonder Years’ vaunted reputation continues to be entirely justified, remaining stable but never even close to coasting, or feeling anything other than indisputably earned in how far they’re willing to go. At the end of it all, their closer can be moulded to fit their legacy perfectly—they came out swinging from this south Manchester venue, and as for getting better? Well, how do you really go up from here?
Words by Luke Nuttall