About three quarters of the way through his band’s set at the Middle East Downstairs on Sunday night, singer Brian Fallon said, “This is a hot one … But we’re all over 30, we can shed off a few pounds.”
I owe my love of this New Jersey quartet to an episode of the ill-fated The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. I fell asleep with the television on one night a few years ago. Although I am not sure what I was watching when I dozed off, I woke up around three in the morning and heard O’Brien announce (on what I am pretty sure was a re-airing of the most recent show) that The Gaslight Anthem would be his musical guest.
“Oh, I think I’ve heard of them,” I thought to myself before nodding off again. About 45 minutes later, right when the band was about to perform, I woke up.
And I’m glad I did.
“The ’59 Sound” totally blew my only partially alert mind. I felt like I had seen rock ‘n’ roll’s past, present, and future, and its name was The Gaslight Anthem.
Between the band’s 2007 debut Sink or Swim and 2008′s The ’59 Sound (click for my Amazon.com review), Fallon’s voice went from sounding sandpapery to having the kind of smoother finish that sandpaper provides. Personally, I think that this was an improvement, as The Gaslight Anthem is more convincing as a rock band than as a punk band. Then again, The ’59 Sound was the first of their records that I heard, so I am probably partial to its sound and that of its equally excellent follow-up, 2010′s American Slang.
Philadelphia singer-songwriter Dave Hause, whose last name is (according to his Twitter) “prounounced like pause, or cause, damnit,” was the ideal opener for The Gaslight Anthem. Striking a stiff but purposeful pose, Hause strummed through a generous set list that he had written out on a piece of pita bread. A good chunk of the audience was as happy to be watching Hause as they were stoked to see the headliner, who Hause mentioned had once opened for his own band, The Loved Ones. Hause’s performance of that band’s song “100K” prompted a borderline bromance to take place in front of me.
He also gave a shout out to Joe Strummer by singing some lyrics to a song by The Hold Steady, an infinitely inferior band that is often lumped in with The Gaslight Anthem.
The Gaslight Anthem then took the stage, and the show started out a bit awkwardly, but not because of the music or the sound. Rather, it was because Fallon was not too keen on the moshing and crowd-surfing that had commenced during the first few songs. After “Great Expectations,” he explained that it wasn’t a Soundgarden concert, and after “45″--the single from his new album that dropped this week, Handwritten--he told people to go to a show by fellow Jersey boys Bon Jovi if they wanted to crowd surf. The confidence and conciliatory attitude with which Fallon delivered his message prevented him from seeming like too much of a killjoy.
The Gaslight Anthem then burned through a dozen or so more songs (mostly from The ’59 Sound and insufficiently from American Slang) that have already become the soundtrack to the lives of the several hundred youngsters who were singing along with every word.
These songs will forever remind them of the experiences that they have only recently had, most likely during their “shortest, gladdest years of life.”
And yet The Gaslight Anthem is almost unwaveringly inspired by a starry-eyed vision of 20th-century American life prior to the time that they and even their parents were born. This is evident enough in the song titles of other songs that they performed on Sunday night: “Old White Lincoln,” “Blue Jean & White T-Shirts,” “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” (i.e., Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer), “Film Noir,” and “Here’s Looking At You, Kid.”
Then there are the lyrics, which referenced “jukebox Romeos,” “Monroe hips,” “classic cars,” and “Mustang Sally.”
The five-song encore closed with the song that made me a fan to begin with, and which, as Brian Fallon had said earlier in the show, the band first performed live on the very stage on which they were standing that night.