L-R: Brian Ostering, Alicia Van Sant, and Don Lee of THE WAG take it outside, in any kind of weather.
Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), November 27, 2019
You’ve probably spotted them, on the stages and under the ceilings of some favorite watering holes within the local music ecosystem: The Stone Pony; The Saint; The Wonder Bar. But chances are much more likely that you’ve encountered The Wag out of doors, in the wild, within a natural habitat that extends from pretty much every area park, plaza, and Porchfest, to the docks, gazebos, and grassy knolls of our municipal marinas, public libraries, baseball diamonds, and even the odd zoo.
With the weather turns warmer, the Shore-based purveyors of radiantly sunny power pop can be counted upon to take it outside; dashing out the door like a pet that’s been cooped up all winter, and getting downright ubiquitous with gigs that include such longstanding commitments as the Monmouth County SPCA’s Dog Walk and Pet Fair at Brookdale Community College (where the band has entertained since the springtime event’s inception), and the many manifestations of the NJ Friends of Clearwater Festival (where Wag bassist-vocalist and songwriter Brian Ostering assumed the role of music director for the eco-friendly fest that’s drawn the participation of wand’ring troubadors named Springsteen and Seeger).
That said, the fall-back season of dwindling daylights is hardly one of hibernation for the Middletown Township combo, established more than 20 years ago by Ostering and his vocalist/ multi-instrumentalist wife, Alicia Van Sant. Newly decked out in their winter coats, the core couple and their bandmates (guitarist/vocalist Don Lee; drummer/ guitarist/ vocalist Joshua Van Ness) prepare to prosecute a cold weather schedule that begins in earnest this weekend — or, as Ostering puts it, “once Thanksgiving hits, it’s nothing but holidays for The Wag!”
Shoreside, the band returns to one of its favorite summer-season sites — Riley Park on Main Street in Bradley Beach — to warm the cockles at the borough’s annual tree lighting ceremony, going on this Sunday, December the First. The Wag (whose catalog of seven indie recordings includes an EP of self-penned Christmas tunes) is scheduled to perform a set of seasonal signatures and original spins during the family-friendly festivities that begin at 4 pm — and which further promise appearances by opera singer Olivia Youngman, the terpsichorean talents of Robin McGill School of Dance and The Dancer’s Workshop, plus Frozen’s Princess Elsa and of course The Big Red Guy himself, arriving in style via fire truck.
For the Wagsters, it’s just part of a very busy interlude that keynotes on the evening of Black Friday up in Red Bank, where the band continues a recently minted tradition of warming up the crowd for the big Town Lighting show by Tim McLoone and the freight-train force of positive vibes known as Holiday Express. The post-Thanksgiving/ pre-Christmas activity climaxes on Saturday, December 30, with a first-annual hometown extravaganza dedicated to the benefit of the MCSPCA.
Going up at 7 pm inside the Middletown Arts Center (the reborn and rebranded warehouse building located just steps from NJ Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line train platform), The Wag’s Christmas Spectacular is being pitched as a step beyond just a holiday concert event — something that’s “more of a variety show, with Santa and dancers (including Jamie Marie Hannigan, featured in the band’s award winning video for their song “She’s a Devil”), and comedy sketches starring the band members.”
“My wife thinks I’m crazy, spending my time on things like painting an 8-foot tall cat snowman,” laughs Osterling, who notes that all profits from the show will be donated to the Monmouth County SPCA’s shelter facility in Eatontown. “But we really want this to become an annual thing…and we’re determined to bring back the concept of the Christmas special!”
The Wag’s drummer, and solo artist, Joshua Van Ness, photographed in action by ace lensman Jeff Crespi.
A further glance at the Wag workplan indicates that the nights leading up to Christmas Eve scarcely stay on the silent side, as the band returns to the streets of Red Bank for another Holiday Harmonies open-air set (this time in front of the Merrill Lynch building at 77 Broad Street) on December 8 — followed on December 13 by a Christmas Spectacular road trip to Laurita Winery in Jackson, and on December 21 by a Christmas Toy Drive event at Espresso Joe’s up in Keyport (where The Wag initiates a monthly third-Friday engagement in January 2020), for the benefit of St. Mary’s Children in Need.
From there, it’s an ever-expanding itinerary that brings the ambassadors of all-year good cheer to all manner of NJ locales — from Jersey City’s annual Fest for Beatle Fans on March 28, 2020, to an anticipated return to Asbury Park during the next Garden State Film Festival (for the 2019 edition of which they screened their latest music video and performed at the Berkeley Hotel).
“We just kind of had the idea of submitting our video as a festival entry, and never expected them to accept it, let alone give us an award,” Ostering says of the event that returned to the seaside city of its birth in 2018. “They even had us walk the red carpet…we were like, are you sure you didn’t call us here to vacuum it?”
Speaking of all things Beatle-based, the last few years have seen the veteran makers of original music explore their affinity for the Fab Four’s folio of milestone masterworks, having channeled their chops to championship level at “Beatles vs. Stones” cover-battles in Belmar and elsewhere. It’s a discipline that finds the foursome bringing its Liverpuddlian kung foo to the 2020 edition of Abbey Road on the River, one of the nation’s tip-top Moptop celebrations, going up next May 22 on the banks of the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
That latest figurative feather in the band’s collective cap represents another point on a journey that’s taken Alicia and Brian from the most intimate of local settings, to LA’s legendary Whisky A Go Go, to a chance to share the stage with The Boss at Clearwater — and to a successful mini-tour of Japan, where The Wag played “venues of all different sizes” (including a heavy metal-oriented club at which they rather unexpectedly “won over the crowd…the people there were so fantastic to us”).
None of which is to suggest that it’s been nothing but smooth seas for the group whose 2010 album Returning Traveler was the last to feature the lineup of Ostering, Van Sant, guitarist Dan Corboy — and founding member (as well as member of the family, by marriage to Alicia’s sister) Brian Mowery, whose sudden passing in 2012 devastated the bandmates to the extent that “(we) seriously thought about retiring from music; the grief and loss was so difficult for us to handle.”
Regrouping with the help of since-retired Corboy and drummer Pete Andrews, Brian and Alicia completed the sessions for the significantly titled Continuum later that year — and shortly thereafter established a partnership with Don Lee that would see the guitar guy (who had his own solo-career fish to fry) go from “sitting in” status to full-fledged Wag-dom.
Gigging around with the help of guest players and auxiliary members like percussionist Arielle Strauss, The Wag locked in its latter-day lineup in 2015, when they wound up on a bill with Van Ness, himself another singer/ songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist familiar to followers of the Shore scene.
“He came up to us and said ‘if you ever need a drummer, I’ll play with you’ — and up to that point, we had no idea he was a drummer, let alone one who just fit in so perfectly with the band,” says Ostering of his rhythm section compadre; an artist whose own solo stuff will soon be on display at Danny Clinch’s Transparent Gallery in The Asbury Hotel (January 11), as well as in a Light of Day event with singer-songwriter Natalie Farrell (January 16).
With one album of all-original material to its credit (2018’s also significantly titled We Carry On), and enough material in the pipeline for a followup release, the reconstituted and ever-resilient extended family of The Wag enters its anything-but-relaxing holiday season from a position of not-at-all-cliched positive energy, and a driving philosophy about which Ostering explains, “our purpose; our personal definition of success, is to make people smile…if we’ve done that much, we know that we’ve done our job.”