Live review: The Wonder Years at O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 15/11/23

The Wonder Years mark the 10th anniversary of The Greatest Generation with a night of community and celebration

Hitting its tenth-year milestone in 2023, for those who first embraced The Wonder Years’ seminal fourth album The Greatest Generation a decade ago, tonight’s visit to Shepherd’s Bush serves a stark reminder of the passage of time.

A landmark pop-punk record flaunting the band’s suburban Philadelphia upbringing, its release concluded a trilogy following 2010’s The Upsides and 2011’s Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, documenting vocalist Dan Campbell’s struggles with finding his place in the world. Now, ten years on, the band are revisiting the album that ripped up the pop-punk blueprint, paving the way for a new generation of heart-on-sleeve, deeply human artists within the scene.

An unassuming frontman, when Campbell casually steps onstage to a roar of appreciation, his gaze is firmly fixed on the floor beneath him. Donning an all-black outfit with a baseball cap perched atop his head, as the gradual build of album opener ‘There, There’ climaxes with a crowd singalong of “I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times” that drowns out the vocalist’s own notes – he springs to life, spinning around in circles with his arms stretched wide.

It’s from this moment that it becomes clear, The Greatest Generation wasn’t just an album; it was a live experience, with every song intricately crafted for the stage. Known for their powerhouse performances, as the six-piece rattle through the album’s A-side, there’s a distinct magic in the room. Campbell – now a father of two – belts out lyrics about the uncertainties of being 26 (‘Passing Through A Screen Door’) and coping with the illness of his grandfather (‘Dismantling Summer’), resonating with a room full of people who once navigated their own confusing twenties and now finds itself pondering different complexities in their thirties.

A collective celebration rooted in much more than simple nostalgia; each note is a reaffirmation of the album’s enduring impact, with Campbell’s sincere chats between songs providing insights into the band’s journey. Prior to breaking out the album’s first ballad ‘The Devil in my Bloodstream’, he reveals that at the time it felt like ‘a big risk’ to put a piano ballad as the album’s centrepiece. Now a firm setlist staple, the band are joined by Kississippi vocalist Zoe Reynolds, the show’s opening artist duetting with Campbell on the delicate track.

Offering the crowd the chance to prove the six men onstage wrong, ‘Teenage Parents’ marks the beginning of a four-song run that Campbell declares to be their least played selection from the album.

“We don’t believe that you give a f**k about them!” he quips, swiftly silenced by the sight of 2,000 fingers pointing towards the stage as a circle pit opens in the centre of the floor.

The band’s biggest London headline show to date – 16 years since their first trip across the Atlantic – there’s a distinct gratitude that remains at the heart of The Wonder Years, frequently pausing to reflect on their journey and acknowledge the privilege of standing where they are. The frontman emphasising the importance of inclusivity within the pop-punk scene, album closer ‘I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral’ brings the nostalgia to a triumphant finale, with bassist Josh Martin and guitarist Matt Brasch joining Campbell for a round-robin interpolation of some of the record’s previous tracks.

After the album’s full run-through – and a short interval – the band return for a second set, delving into their extensive discography with a focus on 2022 album, The Hum Goes On Forever. An extended encore of sorts, in the decade since The Greatest Generation, the pop-punk landscape has transformed, and so have The Wonder Years. A testament to their continued growth, shortly before launching into anthemic recent single ‘Low Tide’, Campbell sets the record straight:

“Our most recent album is the greatest Wonder Years album ever released… we are the best we’ve ever been right now”.

Delivering a second set filled with career highlights spanning twelve years – though everyone in the room holds their own special connection to the album recently played in full – it’s hard to disagree with him. The crowd surging forwards as the night concludes with fan-favourite 2011 single ‘Came Out Swinging’ – joined by Origami Angel vocalist Ryland Heagy following the band’s earlier support slot – it becomes clear that tonight was much more than a trip down memory lane. A celebration of a band that has not only weathered the changing tides of the pop-punk scene but continues to shape its future, The Wonder Years have become a guiding light for the genre they helped define.