By Jack Spencer
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By Reed Fischer
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Fifteen minutes before the Wars of 1812 are supposed to take the stage, lead singer and guitarist Peter Pisano is writing their set list on a page torn from the latest issue of The Onion. Unfortunately, the paper had been used earlier as a coaster for beer cans, and now it's soggy, rendering his writing illegible. An industrious fan passes him a flyer, the back of which is blank and mercifully dry.
"Oh," Pisano says. "Great. Genius. Thanks."
The set list is copied, pocketed, and it's time to start the show.
This kind of happenstance cohesion has come to be definitive of the Wars. They first came together two years ago, after Pisano and drummer Bobby Maher put together some songs they wanted to record just for fun, with no intention of becoming an actual band. But the musicians liked the resulting album, Status Quo Ante Bellum, so much that they decided—aw, what the hell?—to make a go of it.
"We never had to be a band before," says keyboardist Peter Rosewall. "Now we have to promote ourselves, play shows, make connections...it's not like it used to be."
They take the stage, the scribbled set list manifesting itself into music. After each of the first few songs, though, Pisano has to call over the sound guy because the speakers are being finicky. "Sorry to keep bugging you," he says, as if the audio problems are the Wars' fault.
Still, it's easy to see why the group has gained so much attention since moving here from Wisconsin one year ago. There's exuberance in Pisano's personality; he plays so hard that he breaks his guitar's shoulder strap, and has to continue the show awkwardly cradling it.
Next to him, arpeggios and scales reminiscent of Steve Winwood in his Traffic days emanate from Rosewall's keyboard. Until this point, Rosewall had been the most introverted of the bunch, but in performance he can't contain himself. He appears to discover each note exactly the moment before he plays it, and seems surprised, eyebrows constantly rising higher and higher, at the music produced beneath his fingers.
Meanwhile, Mei-Ling Anderson's bass lines provide the grounding element to the show; one can imagine how their music might otherwise levitate away amidst the trills and Wilco-like distortion. Maher is a bit hidden, rotating his attention so that his drums emphasize the piano, then the guitar, his beats somehow more musical than percussive.
Throughout, a fairly rapt audience nods along. The Wars have a diverse following, which they say includes octogenarians, affable polygamists, and history buffs who press them on their name. It seems the separation between fan and friend is a tenuous one; Pisano is liberal with his hugs.
While the group has certainly carved out their own niche during their first year in the Twin Cities, the Wars—and their music—are still adjusting to the new landscape.
"I find city life, in general, more deliberate, directed, and willful," Pisano adds. "There are always people around with half an ear towards you. I'm becoming more self-aware of my work. Music is no longer easy," he says, and one thinks of the faulty speakers, the broken shoulder strap. "I'm learning it shouldn't be."