The Gaslight Anthem’s stage presence is growing and changing in time with their music. Wednesday night’s concert at the LC in Columbus, Ohio, felt more like a “show” than any of the previous four times I’d seen them. That’s not a bad thing, just different. Like their new album, “American Slang,” the band feels more like a professional group now and less like four guys getting up there and wailing away on their instruments. What it may lack in a certain indefinable appeal of youthful spontaneity is made up for by the overall quality of the performance. This band is playing better than ever.
Look no further than the fourth song in the set, “Old White Lincoln,” which saw frontman Brian Fallon shed his guitar for exclusive mic work. Not being strapped to a six-string allowed him to be a bit more expressive. He handled it rather well, staying attached to the stand like a lifeline (reminiscent of Eddie Vedder); he went sans guitar for the next song, too, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and only when he fell on his back and started singing from that prone position did it feel overdone.
Gaslight are also giving the audience more for their money, which is always welcome. With a new album’s worth of material to play, they’ve expanded their shows by about seven songs and 25 minutes from when I saw them a little over a year ago. They still need to figure out the pacing of the main set, though, as there’s way too much slow stuff way too early. The crowd was on fire after “Boxer,” and “The Diamond Church Street Choir” killed some of that momentum; “Diamond Church” is such a fantastic song, it’s too early to be breaking it out at No. 3. They’ve moved “Great Expectations” to the end of the set for this very reason. Couple that with slower tracks like “Miles Davis and the Cool,” “Cowgirls,” “Film Noir,” etc., and of the first 13 songs, only three were truly pogo-worthy. These songs certainly shouldn’t go away; the deck just needs to be shuffled.
Some other suggestions:
• Ditch the extended intro to “Angry Johnny and the Radio.” They used to do this with great effect on “Film Noir,” but the atonal solo on this one from guitarist Alex Rosamila did nothing for me (or the rest of the crowd, apparently), went nowhere, and was way too long.
• They need to figure out what to do with “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.” This is one of my favorites on the new record, but it didn’t quite work in the live setting. This one, actually, could use some more air in it, like extending the mid-song breakdown portion a bit. Right now, though, it’s another momentum killer that doesn’t belong as the penultimate slot of the main set.
• I like the fact they’re rotating through the songs from their debut album, 2007’s “Sink or Swim,” by semi-retiring staples like “1930,” “Wooderson,” etc., in favor of lesser-played tracks “Boomboxes and Dictionaries,” “Red in the Morning,” and “We’re Getting A Divorce, You Keep the Diner.” Trouble is, these songs were left on the bench for so long for a reason: They’re sorta vanilla compared to the other, better tracks from that record, and I won’t be sad to see them fade again after this tour.
OK, so that’s the minor complaints. There was way more good stuff to the show and plenty that surprised me.
One thing I didn’t realize in all my listening to and writing about “American Slang” is how much Fallon’s improved as a singer. The new songs fit his voice much better, and it seems he’s carried that over into the older material. His vocals were clear and strong all night, which added a lot to the overall show.
And speaking of the new stuff … wow. Everything off “American Slang” but “Lower Chelsea” sounded even better in person than it did on the record. Some thoughts:
• The title track is just as effective opening a concert as it is opening the album.
• “Boxer” was better served by skipping the spoken-word intro and just blowing the doors off with the lead guitars. Pairing this song with “High Lonesome” and/or “Casanova, Baby!” would really kick the show into high gear early on.
• During “Stay Lucky,” Fallon flubbed the lyrics to the first chorus and almost couldn’t get through the rest he was laughing at himself so much. The song still killed.
• “Bring It On” was so powerful—that chorus is everything you’d expect and more when heard in person. They should stop playing “Miles Davis” immediately after, because “Bring It On” makes the latter sound puny by comparison.
• Where on earth did “The Spirit of Jazz” come from? The recorded version is very good, but this song exploded off the stage and was easily one of the best songs of the night. It is now one of my favorites off the new record.
Speaking of surprises, who would have thought another Song of the Night contender would be a cover version of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”? Well, actually, it’s more like Gaslight covering Pearl Jam covering The Who. Anyway, the crowd went off on this one, which I found funny, wondering how many of the people down on the floor actually know the original, which was released nearly 40 years ago. Maybe I’m selling them short. Regardless, the building was rocked by one of the all-time great songs, which Gaslight are playing even better now than they did a few months ago during that Who tribute in NYC. At the end, Fallon rushed to the microphone and yelled, “That is SO much fun!” with boyish glee. It’s things like that that make me love the guy all the more.
The whole encore was outstanding. Stretching it out to seven songs allows Gaslight to ramp up the intensity, and Wednesday night they wrung every last bead of sweat out of that insanely hot room packed with what seemed like a near-sellout of a couple thousand people (or about double the audience they drew to D.C.'s 9:30 Club last year). Multiple times throughout the night Fallon thanked the crowd for coming and seemed genuinely astonished that so many people are turning out for their shows these days. He said something to the effect of: “I wish my parents could see this. They’d be so proud.”
Gaslight change their concert-ending song from tour to tour, but “Backseats” may be the best choice yet. It used to close the main set, but it’s really too big a song for that placement. The chiming guitars and monster choruses sent everyone out on a high note after yet another excellent show from a band that is only getting better with time and experience.
The Gaslight Anthem
The Diamond Street Church Choir
Old White Lincoln/Heart of Gold (snippet)
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Bring It On
Miles Davis and the Cool
The ’59 Sound
Red in the Morning
Angry Johnny and the Radio
Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?
Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts
Boomboxes and Dictionaries
The Spirit of Jazz
The Queen of Lower Chelsea
The War (Lucero cover, w/Tim Barry)
We Came to Dance
Senor and the Queen
We’re Getting A Divorce, You Keep the Diner
Here’s Looking at You, Kid
Show Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes