You want to know if a songwriter can really hold his water? Stick him on a bare stage on a Saturday night in front of a packed room armed with nothing but a $200 acoustic guitar and a microphone.
That was the scenario for Brian Fallon this weekend at the Black Cat in D.C. Over the course of a fun and loose hour and a half set, The Gaslight Anthem frontman proved his punk/soul music has real chops (as if we didn’t know that already, but still). Fallon played nearly a dozen Gaslight songs, and all held up extraordinarily well. Stripped bare of the pounding drums and electric guitars, it was impressed upon me yet again what a fabulous songwriter the man is.
Standing out in particular were “Old White Lincoln” and “Casanova, Baby!” On record, these are a couple of freewheelin' uptempo cuts; in one of my reviews I called “Lincoln” a throwaway rocker in the tradition of Springsteen’s “The River” album. But taken down to this level, they become much more serious, effective affairs; not better, necessarily, but definitely more intentional.
Other change-of-pace highlights were “We Came to Dance,” “Senor and the Queen,” and, of course, “1930”; these became almost entirely new songs. Other choices lent themselves perfectly to this setting, quiet Gaslight cuts like “Blue Jeans & White T-shirts,” “Here’s Looking At You, Kid,” and “The Navesink Banks,” whose opening riff drew one of the largest responses of the night. I had already heard acoustic versions of “Great Expectations” and “The ’59 Sound,” and these were as good as ever Saturday night. And Fallon threw in “Film Noir,” which worked quite well despite his own doubts.
Fallon was chatty and in good spirits all night, despite the catcalls and obnoxious song requests from drunken morons. He opened the show not with a song, but a five-minute talk on how this show would peel back “the mystique” of the rock and roll singer. Well, Fallon’s never had much mystique to begin with, and that’s one of the reasons why I love the guy. There was absolutely no self-aggrandizement to the evening, in the way I’ve seen other, more famous frontmen handle these types of shows. Amazingly, though, Fallon was able to tell a joke and have a laugh, then jump right into a song and be lost in that moment as if it was the most serious thing in the world. Overall, it wasn’t as emotionally transcendent as a typical Gaslight show, but it was a different kind of awesome.
For the encore, Fallon was joined onstage by his friend and opener, Dave Hause, lead singer for The Loved Ones. This was actually the weakest point in the show, as their two voices clashed more than complemented one another. Encore opener “Call It Off,” a Tegan and Sara cover, was close to awful, but things got better from there.
Fallon demonstrated a new depth to his voice by taking the lead on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and the two of them finally hit their stride on a wondrous take on Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home.” Covering Social Distortion’s “Ball & Chain” will bring any house down, and then they wrapped up with an outstanding “Gone,” a Bouncing Souls cover they said they figured out right before the show.
Though he talked about how much he loves the Black Cat and how proud he is of the success his band’s had, he didn’t specifically address the irony of the situation Saturday night. The last time he played that venue with Gaslight was Feb. 8, 2008, opening for The Loved Ones in the tiny room downstairs. Now, less than two years later, Hause opened for Fallon, on the mainstage, not even needing the band to basically sell the place out. More than anything, it was good to see the intervening days haven’t changed him all that much. Saturday night’s show felt like just a guy playing a guitar in front of some friends.
All that said, there’s a reason Dave Hause is Dave Hause and Brian Fallon is Brian Fallon (no disrespect to Hause—I loved his set, especially the songs he wrote outside of The Loved Ones; “Resolutions,” “Pray for Tucson,” and “C’mon, Kid” were three of the best of the night, from either guy). When Fallon took the stage and (finally) lit into “Great Expectations,” it was clear once again he has that intangible “it” factor; it’s not mystique, necessarily, but honest, instantly likable charisma. And there’s no peeling that back.
We Came to Dance
Have You Ever Seen the Rain (CCR cover)
The Navesink Banks
The ’59 Sound
Senor and the Queen
Blue Jeans & White T-shirts
Old White Lincoln
Here’s Looking At You, Kid
ENCORE (w/Dave Hause of The Loved Ones)
Call It Off (Tegan and Sara cover)
Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash)
Long Ride Home (Patty Griffin)
Ball & Chain (Social Distortion)
Gone (The Bouncing Souls)
Show Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes