The Gaslight Anthem
Live at St. Andrews Hall, Detroit, MI
September 14th, 2012
*Check this out on my blog too for a few more pictures
Disclaimer: This is going to be long.
The last time I saw a show at Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall, it was 2006: I was 15 years old, lining up for my first real concert, and temperatures had been hovering around 100 degrees all day. Needless to say, the heatwave turned that small and cramped club into a sauna, and I left the building soaked in sweat, smelling worse than anyone has the right to, and dehydrated to a dire state. But the night was legendary: I saw Butch Walker, one of my first and foremost musical heroes, give a show full of raucous antics and emotional intensity that cut through the heat and straight to the core of me. I’ve been to a lot of shows since then, big and small, from stadiums and arenas to the smallest clubs in Michigan, but that first one still has a spark about it that takes me back: my brother’s best friend making a wrong turn and ending up in some shady back alley (in Detroit, this is not a good thing); some homeless guy named Papa Smurf (who later ended up in the pages of Sports Illustrated) trying to bum a few bucks; the opening acts, which included a pre-fame Boys Like Girls and an energetic southern-rock act called As Fast As; Butch’s back-up singers spraying the crowd with hoses; and yes, one of the best setlists and shows I’ve seen by the guy who plays club shows better than anyone.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that my first appointment with the Gaslight Anthem bore a lot of similarities to that show. Over the past few years, Brian Fallon has slowly wormed his way into the ranks of my favorite frontmen in rock ‘n’ roll, and Gaslight’s latest, Handwritten, is likely to take the top spot on my album of the year list. In the time I’ve been a fan, it’s also become a joke of sorts between my brother and I that Fallon was never going to come back to Michigan. We missed out on his visits in 2010, in support of the band’s third album American Slang, and he’s spent most of the intervening years touring Europe, both with Gaslight and side-project The Horrible Crowes. When dates finally started coming out for the Handwritten tour, we were further disappointed by the fact that the band would be supporting Rise Against (along with rockers Hot Water Music) rather than going it alone. The tour included a Grand Rapids date, a short drive for both of us, but the prospect of paying double or triple our usual ticket price to see Gaslight play 12 or 13 songs didn’t seem too appealing.
Then, finally, our prayers were answered. Rise Against was taking a night off on the Friday before that GR show, and Gaslight and Hot Water Music each decided to do one-off tour dates in Detroit. So it was that my brother and I ended up in St. Andrew’s Hall, a sold out crowd swelling around us, waiting for Fallon and company to take the stage. Doors opened at 8, and with the stage already bedecked in Gaslight regalia, it was fairly clear that there was no opening act tonight. No nonsense, straight-to-the-point: the way Springsteen does it and the way I like it.
It was 9 p.m. on the dot when the band took the stage. Opener “Boomboxes and Dictionaries,” the lead-off track from the 2007 debut Sink or Swim announced two things: first, that this was going to be a concert of deep cuts and old songs, meant for the die-hard fans, and second, that the St. Andrew’s Hall sound set-up was abysmal. Fallon’s vocals were far too low in the mix, to the point where anyone unfamiliar with the songs would have had a hell of a time figuring out what he was singing about. The blend was messy at best, sacrificing clarity for sheer volume, and as the show went on, Alex Rosamilia’s lead guitar lines seemed to get sharper and sharper. All of these problems were consistent ones, a shame because the band played one hell of a setlist. Still, the atmosphere was electric, with a crowd full of people who clearly loved this band and these songs as much as I did, and with sing/shout along sessions that rocked the very foundations of the place. While I went back and forth on whether or not the trade-off was an even one (more on that later), The Gaslight Anthem didn’t disappoint.
The best songs in the setlist, almost unanimously, were those culled from the band’s latest record. Call it whatever you like, but the band was clearly the most at home with their latter-day material, and songs like “Howl,” “45,” and “Handwritten” set a high-water mark very early on in the night. That’s not to say that their earlier work fell flat, though. Classics from their 2008 album, The ’59 Sound, formed the backbone of the set, and the inclusions of “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues,” “Meet Me By The River’s Edge,” “The Patient Ferris Wheel,” “Film Noir,” and “The ’59 Sound” all gave way to triumphant sing-alongs. Speaking of those, “Keepsake” was a set highlight, with a skyscraping chorus that rang through the venue like a battle cry, and “American Slang” scorched like the anthem it is, with its massive guitar riff and yet another fist pumping hook.
But the poor quality of the sound definitely took its toll on what was otherwise a nearly spotless performance. I’ve often thought that I would like the songs from Sink or Swim a lot more if they were recorded now. The fidelity of the original recordings makes them sound like demos, but the actual songs are masterful, with more punk edge than the ones from The ’59 Sound, but very obviously cut from the same nostalgic cloth. With five of the album’s 12 songs represented here (“Boomboxes,” “Wooderson,” “Angry Johnny and the Radio,” “1930,” and “We Came to Dance”), this should have been a perfect opportunity to see those songs reborn. Unfortunately, the fuzzy and muddy sound production lent them nothing new, and while they were still fun, welcome additions to the set (especially the last two, which the band pulled out as the show entered its final act), they did not end as highlights for me.
Furthermore, I don’t know if Alex Rosamilia was having an off night in general or if he just couldn’t hear his own instrument (I wouldn’t blame him), but the guitar solos were off-the-mark and strangely ineffective for most of the concert. They ranged from too quiet (the riffs on songs like “Keepsake” and “Mulholland Drive,” moments that define those songs on record but were almost inconsequential here) to sloppy and out-of-tune (the sweeping transitions in “Mae,” which disappointed live after being one of my favorite songs they’ve ever written). It was a bizarre and unfortunate enigma for the band member who really makes Handwritten what it is, and I didn’t quite know how to take it.
But overall, the great moments far outweighed the disappointments. American Slang highlight “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” was a definite treat, slowing down the tempo for a subdued moment late in the main set. Handwritten b-side “Blue Dahlia,” with its rousing chorus and perfect bridge, got the live feature I never thought it would. And finally seeing “The Backseat” live, as the first curtain call, was as euphoric and emotionally visceral as I always knew it would be. There are moments from every live show I’ve been too that I will remember for the rest of my life: looking around me as the house lights went up during “Born to Run” at my first Springsteen show and seeing the ranks of the Palace of Auburn Hills rising around me, all of us screaming along at the top of our lungs; the opening guitar riff of “Where the Streets Have No Name” echoing through a flawless summer night at Spartan Stadium a week or two before the end of U2’s 360 tour; Butch Walker gesturing to my brother and I to help him down into the audience at one of the concerts where we had ended up front and center. Belting along with “The Backseat,” shouting about how “we rode the fever out of Austin” and “dreamed of California lights,” was absolutely up there, and I realized that, ultimately, my complaints about the sound and about how Rosamilia’s guitar didn’t sound quite as pitch-perfect as it does on record didn’t really matter at all. This show was all about the atmosphere: it was about the electricity of the crowd, about the gleeful performance from the band we all loved, and about the setlist that traveled to every corner of their discography. It was about rediscovering the power of rock ‘n’ roll, and I didn’t want that last song to end because I just wanted to keep on cherishing it.
Luckily, that wasn’t the last song. Not by a long shot.
After much racket from the crowd, The Gaslight Anthem re-took the stage and rocketed into a pair of ‘90s covers (Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust” and Nirvana’s “Sliver”). While I don’t particularly care for either song, the band was visibly passionate about both and Brian especially looked like he was having a ball with them. “Biloxi Parish,” despite being considered by some as one of the weaker points of Handwritten was nothing short of potent and transcendent here, resulting in one of my favorite moments of the set. And “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts” provided a note of emotional weight and solemnity to an encore that was otherwise about big, brash rock songs. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the best and most enduring things that Fallon has written to date.
I’ve seen artists skimp on the encore a lot of times before. A year and a half ago, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam brought my disappointment in his live show full-circle by doing a cop out, one-song encore that wasn’t “The Trapeze Swinger.” Ryan Adams took intimacy to a new height during his show at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last winter, but left it feeling truncated and unfinished when he departed the stage after “Come Pick Me Up” and didn’t come back. The best shows are the ones with the artists who just keep going, the ones who come back for “one more song” three or four times and act like they never want to leave the stage. Bruce Springsteen is famous for this, and on Friday night, Brian Fallon and the guys in the Gaslight Anthem channeled that stamina in spades. The house lights didn’t go up after the band’s second departure, and even though many of my fellow audience members started moving towards the exits, I was holding onto hope that they still had a little more to give. Lo and behold, after copious amounts of shouting, screaming, clapping, and stomping, the boys were back onstage one more time, for that elusive second encore.
As I mentioned before, the band kicked off their final stand with a pair of Sink or Swim songs (“1930” and “We Came to Dance”), both of which crackled with the same energy and force that they had been channeling all night. “The Diamond Church Street Choir” took one of the evening’s few trips into American Slang territory (suffice to say that I could have done with a few more), and “Here’s Looking At You, Kid” functioned in much the same way as “Blue Jeans” had – as a gorgeous, sobering torch song. When the guitar riff for ’59 Sound opener “Great Expectations” echoed through the hall, there seemed to be an agreement of sorts between the band and the audience that this was the grand finale, and both parties acted accordingly. The crowd surged forward, transforming the venue’s floor into a riotous mosh pit. In situations like this, you have no choice but to give yourself over to the insanity of it all, to go with the ebb and flow of the crowd, hang on for dear life, and hope you don’t die. But one last explosive, sweaty, communal sing-along was just what the set needed to send it off, and even though I didn’t get my choice for a closer (the latest single “Here Comes My Man,” which was surprisingly absent from the set), you can’t complain too much with a song as good as “Expectations.”
At two hours and 29 songs, with a pair encores and more memorable moments than I can possibly expound upon here, Friday night’s gig was the longest show The Gaslight Anthem have played all year. It was longer than the Handwritten album release show or any of the concerts they played in Europe. It was certainly more sprawling than all of their supporting dates with Rise Against and Hot Water Music, past or future, or any of the slots they played on the festival circuit. It was also a textbook example of the age-old rock ‘n’ roll show agreement between a performer and their audience: the band gave fans an epic marathon show that covered deep cuts and greatest hits alike, and in turn, we gave them a chance to let loose, have fun, and own the room like the rock stars they deserve to be. Five years into their career, The Gaslight Anthem are already building a legacy of great songs, better albums, and evocative classic rock traditions, and their live shows follow suit with all of that. Had the sound in St. Andrew’s Hall be a bit better, I might have been ready to proclaim this concert as one of the greatest I had ever seen; even with that, though, it’s still pretty damn close, and that’s worth an awful lot.
1. Boomboxes and Dictionaries
2. American Slang
4. Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
7. Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?
9. Meet Me By The River's Edge
10. Keep Sake
11. Angry Johnny and the Radio (with Brand New - "Jesus Christ" tag)
12. The Patient Ferris Wheel
13. The '59 Sound
14. Film Noir
15. Senor and the Queen
16. Blue Dahlia
17. The Queen of Lower Chelsea
18. Mulholland Drive
20. The Backseat
21. State of Love and Trust (Pearl Jam cover)
22. Silver (Nirvana Cover)
23. Biloxi Parish
24. Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts
26. We Came to Dance
27. The Diamond Church Street Choir
28. Here's Looking At You, Kid
29. Great Expectations