Great Expectations: Gaslight Anthem, Hold Steady to turn Detroit into Rock City

Two important things will happen Thursday.

First, I’ll be passing through Wapakoneta, Ohio, a town I first discovered in 2004 while driving to a concert in Detroit. There’s nothing particularly special about the town, but the name became a living punchline, and every time I think of Ohio, I think of Wapakoneta. It will always make me laugh.

The other important thing comes after passing through Wapakoneta on my way to Detroit, where I’ll be seeing what could very well be one of the best concerts of my life: The Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady. Both bands are Springsteen disciples and are renowned for their live acts, so seeing them share a stage for a one-time-only concert could be more rock and/or roll than I can possibly handle.

Last year, Cory Graham told me to look up The Gaslight Anthem’s album The ’59 Sound, saying he was 100 percent certain I’d love it. He couldn’t have been more correct. I immediately fell in love with the imagery of the lyrics and the interplay between the musicians. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the band wears its Springsteen love on its sleeves, with lyrics including “At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet/It’s a pretty good song, baby, you know the rest.”

Not every line was as blatant a tribute. The album’s final cut, “Backseats,” share a Springsteen-type vibe and sound without saying “hey, look at us: we’re doing Bruce here!”

In the backseats of burned out cars.
In the disenchantment lane.
The ideal angels twist and turn, ask forgiveness for future mistakes.
But you and I we’ve been through this.
Maybe 100 times before.
Always hitching rides with strangers.
Papa warned us about before

But you know the summer always brought it.
That wild and reckless breeze.
And in the backseat, we’re just trying to find some room for our knees.
And in the backseat, we’re just trying to find some room to breathe.

And in the wild desert sun, we drove straight on through the night.
We rode a fever out of Boston.
Dreamed of California nights.
Come July, we’ll ride the Ferris Wheel.
Go round and round and round.
And if you never let me go, well I will never let you down.

The band also excelled when doing their own thing, like on “Here’s Looking at You, Kid”:

You remind Nana, if she asks why,
that a thief stole my heart while she was making up her mind.
I heard she lives in Brooklyn with the cool,
goes crazy over that New York scene on 7th Avenue.
But I used to wait at the diner, a million nights without her,
praying she won’t cancel again tonight.
And the waiter served my coffee with a consolation sigh.
You remind Nana, if she asks why.

I first got to see The Gaslight Anthem perform these songs at Lollapalooza 2009, and one of the things that struck me most about them was how much fun they had playing live, particularly in front of such a large audience. The guys had looks that seemed to say, “We can’t believe we get to do this for a living.” So many musicians, hell, too many musicians, today forget the fun of music and act like it’s such a chore. I fully appreciate the groups who have fun on stage with each other, giving it all to their fans.

A few months after Lolla, I got to seem them again at Bogart’s in Cincinnati, and I realized more fully how powerful this band could be in front of an audience. They deserve to be seen in a smaller venue, and the show in Detroit gives me that chance.

I’m also looking forward to hearing the songs of their latest album, American Slang. I’ve listened to it at least 30 times since it was released last month, and as much as I loved it on the first listen, it grows each subsequent time I play it.

The album starts off with the title track, with pounding bass and drums giving way to the electric lead guitar and lead singer Brian Fallow’s perfectly raspy voice declaring the chorus:

And they cut me to ribbons and taught me to drive
I got your name tattooed inside of my arm
I called for my father but my father had died
While you told me fortunes, in American slang

The album is full of little surprises, as the band expands its musical sound from the previous records but stays complete with perfect lyrics, including this gym from “The Queen of Lower Chelsea”: “American girls, they want the whole world/They want every last little light in New York City.”

Three tracks stand out for me as being among the band’s best work yet. “We Did it When We Were Young” slows the pace down and blends vocal work to create a haunting farewell on the final track:

Don’t write me no more letters
My mailbox is full of bombs
Between you and the kooks on my block
I don’t remember the good times
I wasn’t there and you were kind
And my wife has some dogs in our yard
And I cannot hold a candle for every pretty girl
We were strangers many hours
And I missed you for so long
When we were lions, lovers in combat
Faded like your name on those jeans that I burned.

“The Boxer” blends an old rock standby of a man in the ring and the wannabe rock star, giving us this chorus, full of the hope and redemption that can be found through artistic expression and writing:

He took it all gracefully on the chin
Knowing that the beatings had to someday end
He found the bandages inside the pen
And the stitches on the radio
There was something, baby, holding you down
And there were whispers that were driving you crazy
And now you hunt the heart of this town
Remember when I knew a boxer, baby.

The standout, though, might very well be “Bring It On,” a song with rousing music yet troubled lyrics (yet another Springsteen touch). In it, Fallon tells an ex-flame how his love will never be matched by another. It’s cocky, yet heartbreaking.

My queen of the Bronx
Blue eyes and spitfire
I saw you walking back and forth
About another boy
Thinking that you may want to leave

So give me the fevers that just won’t break
And give me the children you don’t want to raise
And tell me about the cool
He sings to you in those songs
If it’s better than my love
Then bring it on.

As perfect as The ’59 Sound is, American Slang somehow manages to top it. The band has found its own footing, its own voice. On The ’59 Sound, they sounded like a band influenced by Bruce Springsteen. On American Slang, they sound like a band influenced by The Gaslight Anthem.

Detroit (and Wapakoneta), here we come.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s