Every Word Handwritten
“Well I wonder which song they’re going to play when we go / I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow” – The Gaslight Anthem “The ‘59 Sound”
Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem reminds me of someone, but I can’t place my finger on whom. He starts off the show slumping to center stage, flanked by the rest of The Gaslight Anthem, slowly strumming the chords to “Mae.” The lighting at the House of Blues is too much for this simple band from Jersey. The blue backlights and darting spots feel more extravagant than The Gaslight Anthem’s gruff brand—equally influenced by punk, blues, and rock and roll. “Mae” is one of the best songs from their latest album Handwritten, released in July; I didn’t expect them to open with it. Not much could keep me from enjoying the solemn track and I keep my eyes focused on the singer’s face, childishly hoping to catch his eye. The person standing behind me unnecessarily has an arm on my back, clearly planning to shove me out of the way as soon as Alex Rosamilia brings in the lead guitar and Benny Horowitz stomps his kick drum. For now though, everything is subdued and I keep trying to figure out why Fallon seems like an old friend.
The band starts into their second song: the title track from their 2008 breakthrough album The ‘59 Sound. My 25-pound advantage keeps my fellow fan behind me and my view clear. Fallon’s soulfully gritty voice is well suited to the diverse capabilities of the rest of the band. “The ‘59 Sound” is a bombastic track and he matches the dynamic of Horowitz’s cymbals during the surging chorus. It’s hard to imagine that he is same person whose notes almost sounded pleading during ”Mae”. But Fallon’s person does not dwarf Rosamilia, Alex Levine and touring guitarist Ian Perkins. Instead they are so engaged in their own craft, so dedicated to the building crescendo that they may as well be kids in their bedrooms playing along to headphones.
Fallon pauses between songs to monologue about growing up as a Jets fan and how much he hates Mark Sanchez now. He asks if, for one game, we would lend him “the pretty guy” (Tom Brady, I presume), adding an exaggerated hair toss to the phrase. I laugh, but can’t help but think that the handsome, tattooed front man himself is about as close to a stereotypical Romeo as the punk rock community has produced. During this break, the band members are casually sipping PBR and joking with their guitar tech as if they were playing a basement show to 15 people. Then, moments later, they launch into the crashing wo-oah’s of “Handwritten” and I am captive to the music again. The song has the unchained energy of punk and the focused melodicism of traditional rock and roll. Perkins stands just to Fallon’s left, his painter hat pulled low, supplementing the dynamic verses and soaring chorus with careful pickwork. The moment that the softly toned melody of the bridge fades, Rosamilia smashes his snare drum and the music builds to a massive ending.
Midway through their set they bring out “Angry Johnny and the Radio,” a track from their debut album Sink or Swim—a personal favorite of mine. The monitors radiate precision as they swing through the off-beat verses and the stop-start jaunt of the chorus. During the bridge the guitars fade out, Rosamilia prolongs a snare role, and Fallon sings a bit of Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” during the open space. The moment of inspiration feels spontaneous and natural—an unpredictable twist that gives me chills. As the chorus returns, the crowd explodes.
Later on, they roll into “Too Much Blood,” a mid-tempo Tom Petty-esque track. It doesn’t interest me on record and still bores me live. I sway in time with those next to me, my eyes wandering to the left. A slick haired, broad chested man has formed a barricade around his girlfriend for fear of her getting knocked over, but the kids in hoodies behind him seem oblivious. The thirty somethings with thick Boston accents and Bruins jerseys that I chatted with before the show are nowhere to be seen, and my eyes return to the stage where the band is still pouring themselves into the song despite the crowd’s sub-par reaction. By my count, “Too Much Blood” is their fifteenth song and they don’t show signs of stopping. As the song ends, I realize that they played much of Handwritten as well as a healthy dose of The ‘59 Sound. As I start to wonder why 2010’s American Slang hasn’t gotten much attention, Rosamilia picks the opening notes to the album’s centerpiece, “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.”
They close the set with “Great Expectations”— a fan favorite. Fallon is perspiring onto his white v-neck as he bounces around the stage, while Horowitz’s ride cymbal threatens to fall over from his forceful strokes; Verses that sound bouncy on record are thundering in concert. Already one of the fastest songs on The ‘59 Sound, “Great Expectations” arrives in a frenzy and I struggle to keep my balance with the shifting crowd. As the song screeches to halt in the booming outro, I take a breath, knowing full well that a long encore is coming. The weak of heart have headed for coat check, but there are still some 1,000 people packed into the three-story hall by my estimation. The encore is diverse, including songs from all four albums and two b-sides. While the older fans go nuts for “1930,” a song originally recorded with Fallon’s old band This Charming Man, the band’s big sign off is “The Backseat,” the closing track from The ‘59 Sound. Rosamilia swings the melody up high as Horowitz rushes through sixteenth notes on the high-hat. Levine’s baseline runs below Fallon’s soaring voice throughout the second verse and into the triumphant chorus: “You know the summer always brought in that wild and reckless breeze / And in the backseat we just tried to find some room for our knees.” Like many a Gaslight Anthem song, the bridge is tense—Fallon nearly whispers and Perkins mutes his chords. The entire building feels set to explode and I drift to the side of the floor to get a better view of the stage. All five musicians hunch over their instruments, trying to hold back the energy pouring through their arms. But it can’t last. They all rise together into the final chorus as Fallon’s adds one last remark, singing part of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” over the usually instrumental outro. Moments later the lights come up, the band walks off stage, and the cymbals still ring in my ears as I walk into the Boston night.