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Gaslight Anthem Returns to its Roots at Intimate New York Show: Concert Review

Gaslight Anthem live 2013 P
Paul Familetti

The Bottom Line

The New Jersey band takes the stage at Irving Plaza for the Red Bull Sound Select series.

Venue

Irving Plaza
New York City
(Saturday, July 27)

Sandwiched between The Gaslight Anthem’s two huge headlining concerts at New York's Hudson River Park was an intimate Saturday night stop at Irving Plaza. Part of Red Bull Sound Select, this free show for competition winners was one of ten that took place in cities all over the U.S. with the aim of spotlighting and supporting local music scenes.

While The Gaslight Anthem hail from just across the Hudson, New York is like a second home for the band, as was confirmed by the charged electric atmosphere that sparked throughout the whole set. When fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen joined them onstage at Glastonbury (and then Hard Rock Calling, the next day) in 2009, their popularity soared. And it's no wonder: their anthemic, rousing songs certainly channel the iconic singer’s romantic escapism.

Yet there’s much more to The Gaslight Anthem than striking a familiar Boss chord. Equally inspired by soul music, jazz and movie iconography and the likes of rock and punk bands such as Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, Tom Waits and The Replacements, they’ve infused those influences into their own songs to create their own identifiable vision of America, specifically New Jersey and New York. So while this isn’t exactly a hometown show, it would certainly recall the kind of venues they were playing even just a couple of years ago, and certainly before they signed to Mercury in 2011. 

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It was appropriate, then, that they kicked off the evening with “Handwritten”, the title track from their most recent album. Their first major label release is bringing The Gaslight Anthem’s music to even more people, but, as the opening strains of the song ably demonstrated, it’s clear they still hold true to both their roots and the hard-working integrity that permeates their music.

The diverse set list certainly proved that. Although they didn’t play as long as they usually do, the band made sure to mix it up with songs from all four of their albums. A full band version of “The Navesink Banks,” an aching and tender ode to lost innocence, and blistering renditions of “Boomboxes And Dictionaries” and “1930”, all from their grittier 2007 debut, fit in perfectly with cuts from the following three albums. “Great Expectations” and “The ’59 Sound” -- the latter the title track of their breakthrough second album and the number which Springsteen endorsed -- sent the crowd into a predictable frenzy, while a thunderous, bombastic “American Slang” (for which they were joined by opener Dave Hause) and an impassioned “45” saw the room sing almost as loudly as those with microphones.

Beyond the music, the band presented themselves as both down-to-earth and funny, and frontman Brian Fallon was in exceptionally fine form. Before “Howl”, he ran the audience through a sing-along tutorial, which included classic cuts such as “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and a couple of Lady Gaga tunes. He later ruminated on the origins of the key hook to fellow New Jersey band Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer." At one point, he even stopped “Blue Dahlia” to bring a girl who had been crowdsurfing to kick off the final verse of the song. It was clearly an overwhelming moment for her, and all she could do was hide behind her hands in disbelief.

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Still, all frivolity aside, this is a band whose songs are ruled by their emotional reach and an ability to connect to the crowd in front of them. “This is tight corners,” chuckled Fallon, presumably referencing the fact that the capacity of the Hudson River shows, and, indeed, most Gaslight Anthem shows nowadays, are about five times the size. But while they m have graduated from playing 1,200-person clubs, their passion clearly burns just as fiercely as it ever did. Although never in doubt for a second this evening, that came through especially strongly by the encore.

Beginning with the scorching, slow-burn of “Mae," one of the finest songs in their now extensive catalog, and then gathering momentum via “Mulholland Drive” and the aforementioned “1930," until “The Backseat” -- a paradoxical combination of nostalgia for the good old days and a desperate yearning for better days, all set to a driving melody -- united band and crowd in a frenzy of exuberance and energy. Sure, it presented a vision of America that’s tattered and sad, but it’s also a song full of hope and possibility.

To call The Gaslight Anthem's oeuvre the epitome of the American Dream might be going too far, but at Saturday's s show, it certainly felt as if all were living it, if only for 90 minutes.

Set List:

Handwritten
The ’59 Sound
The Diamond Church Street Choir
Biloxi Parish
Boomboxes And Dictionaries
American Slang
Howl
The Navesink Banks
45
Blue Dahlia
Too Much Blood
Great Expectations

Encore:

Mae
Mulholland Drive
1930
The Backseat

Twitter: @THRMusic

Paul Familetti