Ardmore, Lower Merion Township, PA — There is a certain aesthetic for DIY bands. Beat up vans, worn out instruments, rough and tumble sound. It’s an integral part of punk and garage rock culture.

When Wheatus took the stage Thursday night in Ardmore, they couldn’t have less looked the part. There were no leather jackets or Doc Martens to be found. Band founder and frontman, Brendan B. Brown, was wearing black Nike’s and a t-shirt with the image of a cat wearing a cowboy hat, riding a great white shark, as the shark vomits up a rainbow. Their look and sound don’t fit the DIY stereotype, but then again, Wheatus has never fit comfortably into any mold.


 

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Wheatus Performs at the Ardmore Music Hall.

Photo by Jacob Jones-Goldstein


 

Predominantly known in the US for their biggest hit, ‘Teenage Dirtbag,’ the band has been around since forming in New York in 1995. Brown is the mainstay in an outfit that has seen a considerable amount of lineup changes. They played club shows all over before breaking out with their eponymous debut album and the huge success of ‘Dirtbag.’ Since then, they have put out five more albums, played shows all over the world, and finally ended up in Ardmore.

They were playing the Ardmore Music Hall as part of a tour with Soul Coughing Frontman Mike Doughty. Wheatus is the opener on the tour, playing 45ish minute long sets before taking a break and then coming back out as Doughty’s backing band. When you consider that they don’t have any roadies, no label, and no manager, the workload is immense.

“It’s a lot of manual labor,” said Brown, when I talked to him before the show, “A lot of running around. A lot of keeping things in your brain, but it kind of keeps you sharp and the activity level is really high for each of us.”  That activity level was evident when I arrived towards the end of the sound check. Bassist Matthew Milligan was giving directions and keeping track of where everything was as the band finished their setup. Brandon Ticer, the keyboardist, was fiddling with mic’s, backup vocalists Joey Slater and Gabrielle Aimée Sterbenz, and drummer Madden Klass, were all running around getting things set.


 

Wheatus Performs at the Ardmore Music Hall.

Photo by Jacob Jones-Goldstein

 

“Certain of us know how to do things others don’t,” Brown went on to say when I asked him if everyone had designated jobs, “In the case of the drums, what would take me two hours would take them 15 minutes.”

There is an upside to the hard work of doing it yourself, according to Brown, “There’s a certain comfort in being responsible for your own mistakes and not having someone else screw something up for you.”  

“That happened before. A very well-intentioned person trying to help dropped something,” Matthew Milligan elaborated, “If one of us would drop something then we can absorb that into the group and take that in stride. When someone else does it, then that hits a little harder.”  Brown added, “We do it because we don’t like to yell at strangers.”

For most shows, the last thing that happens before the band comes on is someone tapes down the setlist for each member. That doesn’t happen with Wheatus. One of the most unique aspects of any Wheatus performance is that they don’t use set lists.




 

Wheatus Performs at the Ardmore Music Hall.

Photo by Jacob Jones-Goldstein


 

“Usually we’ll walk out on stage and know what we’re gonna open with and we have a pretty good idea what we’re going to close with,” Milligan told me, “The middle portion of the show we like to get a sense of the vibe of the crowd.” He explained that sometimes they will have a setlist when they’re the opening band, depending on time constraints, but not on the current tour with Doughty. “On these shows, it’s been interesting because some nights we’ve played really heavy stuff and people have responded to that,” he elaborated, “other nights we’ve played more ballady-folk stuff and people have responded to that. We like having the freedom that we can make those decisions on the fly and based on what’s getting reactions decided what to do next.”

This kind of change from night to night requires the band to be ready to play a considerable number of songs at a moments notice. During Thursday’s performance, a fan in the crowd shouted out a request for them to play ‘Dynomite Satchel of Pain,’ which caused the group to laugh. It was one they hadn’t practiced. That didn’t deter them in the slightest. Despite Madden Klass never having heard the song, she was a last minute replacement for usual drummer Leo Freire, Brown explained the rhythm and off they went. It was an exciting moment and one that really showed both the bands willingness to play anything and their musical prowess.

I saw them play in Philadelphia last year as a headliner and the crowd shouted out dozens of requests between each song. I asked if that was the case when they were the opening band as well, “On the Mike Doughty shows it’s been more of a conversational vibe. I think we’re surprising people with the all-request thing. Towards the end of the set people are like, ‘Oh wait, I have one’ once they realize we’re almost done,” answered Brown.


 

Wheatus Performs at the Ardmore Music Hall.

Photo by Jacob Jones-Goldstein


 

“In a year and a half when we do the 2020 20th anniversary tour and re-issue of the first album, the goal by that time is to have sound designed and rehearsed every single piece of the whole entire catalog,” explained Brown, “It’s approximately 80 songs.”

That tour, coming up next year, will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of their debut album. One of the things to look forward to is the band reworking the album. “We’re re-recording the entire thing, and it’s being released as a 20 song album,” said Brown, “There were some lost tracks along the way that sounded more like they belonged on album one than anything else.”

The Music Hall was crowded when they began to play on Thursday. They opened with a raucous rendition of ‘Break It Don’t Buy it.’ The first line of the song is “I took warrior classes where I learned to kick asses” which is a pretty bold mission statement to start a show, but for a band as practiced and tight as Wheatus, it was also pretty perfect.

The second song of the performance was ‘Michelle,’ followed up by ‘Lemonade.’ ‘Michelle’ is an unreleased song, and ‘Lemonade’ is from their second album, ‘Hand Over Your Loved Ones.’ As breakup songs go, ‘Lemonade’ is a particularly visceral and honest one that belies its pop style. They followed that up with ‘Fourteen’ which feels like another breakup type song, with much harder guitar sounds than ‘Lemonade.’ It showed off the nature of Wheatus shows perfectly as they bounce around from one style to another in a way that feels natural and invigorating when you see and hear it.

The aforementioned ‘Dynomite Satchel of Pain’ was next, in one of the funniest moments in the show. The band's humor is always on full display, and there was plenty of funny banter along with great rock music.

After ‘Dynomite,’ the band decided they wanted to do a cover and offered the crowd two options, a song from Rush or from The Tragically Hip. Brown asked the audience to applaud for which one they wanted to hear, “A Canadian cage match” he quipped. Rush won out, and they played ‘Time Stand Still.’ Rush’s brand of progressive rock and roll is notoriously complicated, especially on the drums, so deciding to play a Rush cover on what felt like a whim is no small feat. Naturally, they followed that up by playing the Tragically Hip song ‘Music At Work’ despite it losing the fan vote. Both covers were well done, and the band really made them their own in the playing, which is not always easy.


 

Wheatus Performs at the Ardmore Music Hall.

Photo by Jacob Jones-Goldstein


 

After the covers, they decided to play ‘No Happy Ending Tune,’ which would seem like a good set closer, but there were still a few songs to go. They followed it up with the one everyone knew, ‘Teenage Dirtbag.’ I’m not sure if it’s to the credit of the performance or just how many fans were in the building, but the crowd didn’t seem to be overly anticipating ‘Dirtbag,’ I think they were just enjoying the show and not just waiting for the one they knew.

There’s no real getting around just how good a pop-rock song ‘Dirtbag’ is. I would be willing to bet it’s the only song of theirs that gets played at every show. Sometimes with a big hit like that the performance can be a little perfunctory like they want to get on to music they haven’t played a million times before. That wasn’t the case this evening. They played their hit with passion and made it fun. It was different from when I had previously seen them, and they did it as a sing-a-long then. Here they just played the hell out of it and paused briefly for Brown to mock getting himself fixed up, before the final third of the song. It was a bit of exaggerated fun and worked within the vibe of the show.

The show ended with a performance of ‘Valentine,’ introduced as a ‘Post-apocalyptic love ballad.’ It’s a dynamite song that builds to a finale of Brown singing the word ‘Sunshine’ over and over.

The band has a Patreon set up, where, for a couple of bucks a month you can help support them, and in exchange, you get to know them in a way that isn’t possible with most bands. “It’s not wealth and riches, it’s connection. People get what they want from us on an individual basis. It kind of cuts through the mass delivery system and makes it an individual delivery system. If someone wants us to play a certain song in a set, they can just tell us to,” Brown said of the Patreon, but he might as well have been talking about their performance on stage.  


 

Wheatus Performs at the Ardmore Music Hall.

Photo by Jacob Jones-Goldstein


 

This was Wheatus’ first-ever performance in the Ardmore Music Hall, despite Brown’s connection to the area (his siblings went to Villanova). When they left to get ready to play with Doughty, I was left wishing for more. They pack a lot into 45 minutes, and it’s a fun journey. With most concerts, there’s a separation between the band and the audience. Wheatus does it’s best to remove that separation and get everyone together.

At least for one night in Pennsylvania, they succeeded.  

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