Singer-guitarist Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles.
The Gaslight Anthem
The Gaslight Anthem, The Roxy, May 18th, 2012
Jun 04, 2012
On "45," the first single from The Gaslight Anthem's forthcoming major-label debut, Handwritten, singer-guitarist Brian Fallon confesses, "I can't move on and I can't stay the same." His lyrics to the song, which cleverly substitute the flipping of a 7" single for the common metaphors of turning the page or closing a chapter, seem to be about letting go of memories of a girl, but those quoted words aptly describe the current dilemma faced by the New Jersey band (and countless others that have been in its position). If you repeat the winning formula that has earned you a fanbase and success, you run the risk of stagnating creatively. If you move on from what your fans love about you—in the interest of evolving artistically—you might alienate them, an especially treacherous maneuver when your fanbase has been built in the grass roots arena of punk rock, as The Gaslight Anthem's has.
This Friday night performance in the intimate confines of Los Angeles' Roxy Theatre had the makings of a historic show. Fallon shared some of the venue's history with the audience, noting that Paul Reubens debuted his Pee-wee Herman character there, how Neil Young christened the club with a week-long run of shows when it opened, and acknowledged a fan's reminder of the famed 1970s Springsteen shows there that were broadcast over the radio. Though Fallon didn't mention it, The Roxy is also where, a month before the release of Nevermind, Nirvana headlined a show and handed out flyers that invited fans to appear in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video two days later. The recent groundswell of support surrounding The Gaslight Anthem is reminiscent of when other acts have been on the verge of exploding; the band has been tagged with the kind of demonstrative proclamations of greatness that once saddled the likes of Springsteen, The Clash, The Replacements, and R.E.M. But greatness wasn't evident at the Roxy, where the band performed an abbreviated one-hour, 15-song warmup set puzzlingly scheduled between two East Coast gigs within five days. More apparent was that the band indeed needs to move on and that it can't stay the same.
At a time when indie rock has full-on embraced synthesized instrumentation evocative of the 1980s, The Gaslight Anthem is the kind of band you want to believe in, maybe even need to believe in—heart-on-the-sleeve rockers with a blue-collar, pay-your-dues ethos who can tap the gut-punching power of rock 'n' roll through fist-pumping anthems and sing-along choruses. Plenty of that was on display at The Roxy, a venue about one-fifth the size of The Wiltern, where the band played two years ago. A wave of bodies surged forward to the bounce of "Casanova, Baby!" from the band's second LP, The '59 Sound. That album's spirited title track drew a fevered response, instigating both pushing and an allegiance of raised arms to the back of the room. Most in the crowd knew "45" word for word, singing along at the top of their lungs, despite the song being less than three weeks old. Drummer Ben Horowitz pounded the drums with enough force that, late in the show, a shard of his drumstick flew to the front of the stage. Fallon, a thoughtful lyricist who sings in a robust, cigarette-charred voice, is a charismatic frontman. He told the crowd how he could get used to West Coast living and that no matter how hard they try back east, they can't make Mexican food like in Los Angeles. But he too is a throwback artist, his songs suffused with nostalgia and references to classic rockers such as Springsteen and Tom Petty. Whereas Springsteen sang about "Backstreets," Fallon sings about "The Backseat," coincidentally one of the band's best songs.
For now, these derivatives are not so troubling; after all, Springsteen's best albums were steeped in homage. The chief concern at The Roxy was that many of the songs began to bleed into a single mass—same attack, same pacing, same vocal delivery. That partly had to do with time constrictions that prevented the band from downshifting during the set. Because of another show that already was scheduled for later in the night, The Gaslight Anthem took the stage at 7 p.m. and finished at 8 p.m. (The announced time was 6 p.m. though, so why not start at 6:30 p.m. and play a 90-minute set?) Consequently, the band performed only two songs from its 2010 album, American Slang, a collection that showcases more diversity from Fallon and better dexterity from lead guitarist Alex Rosamilia. Glaringly absent from The Gaslight Anthem's repertoire at The Roxy were infectious guitar riffs, somewhat crucial to being to a great guitar-based band. By comparison, consider The Hold Steady, another East Coast band that shares The Gaslight Anthem's affinity for Springsteen, The Replacements, and the communal spirit of punk. Vocalist/lyricist Craig Finn attracts all the attention in The Hold Steady, and the recent departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay caused a minor brouhaha among fans, but guitarist Tad Kubler's contributions are indispensable. His riffage lends each song distinctive character, which is especially vital given Finn's limited vocal range.
Aside from "45," The Gaslight Anthem played no songs from Handwritten. So it remains to be seen if the band can dial back the nondescript, chugging guitar tendencies that render the first 14 seconds of "American Slang" extraneous, and whether Rosamilia can continue to make the strides he exhibited elsewhere on American Slang. At The Roxy, Ian Perkins (Fallon's partner in his side project, The Horrible Crowes) joined the band as a third guitarist. They bungled the solo to "45" and laughed it off. No one seemed to mind, as fans understood this to be a warmup show and savored a degree of proximity that perhaps won't be possible again in L.A. after Handwritten is released. To their delight, Fallon dove into the crowd during the show's closer, a cover of The Who's "Baba O'Riley."
This song, and a soundchecked cover of Tom Petty's "You Got Lucky," exposed the melodic gap between The Gaslight Anthem and their heroes while also raising the question: how would an instrumentally rich, more melodic major-label debut be received among the band's faithful? How would a Moog go over, for example? The band has attracted a fascinating cross-section of fans. While Springsteen and Clash t-shirts could be spotted at the show, Pantera and Dead Kennedys also were represented amid discussions of Rise Against and Dropkick Murphys.
Handwritten being produced by Brendan O'Brien is a double-edged sword. O'Brien, who worked with Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine in the '90s, produced four of Springsteen's albums in the 2000s to mixed results. You'd like to see The Gaslight Anthem take steps on this album, its fourth, to create more distance from Springsteen, who is mentioned in seemingly every piece written about the band. By his fourth album, he had shed the comparisons to Dylan and Van Morrison that hounded him early in his career. Still, O'Brien did expand Springsteen's sonic palette after it withered in the late '80s and through the '90s. As rousing as "45" is, the track gives no indication that O'Brien will do the same for Fallon's songs; musically, "45" is textbook Gaslight Anthem. Another question is: If Fallon felt compelled to reserve a batch of songs for The Horrible Crowes, how much creative latitude does he feel he has in The Gaslight Anthem? (http://gaslightanthem.com)