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Punks and Poets: The Gaslight Anthem at Rams Head Live, Sept. 28

October 1, 2010

Before his manager intervened, Bruce Springsteen originally meant to give his song “Hungry Heart” to the Ramones, and listeners ever since have wondered what that not-to-be-denied pop hit might have sounded like if the Ramones recorded it. Perhaps Gaslight Anthem exists merely to answer that question.

When Gaslight Anthem took the stage at Rams Head Live Tuesday night, it jumped right into a quickened attack of pumping quarter notes, as if it was the early Ramones. Ben Horowitz’s drums, Alex Levine’s bass, and Brian Fallon’s guitar—even Fallon’s staccato lead vocals—all acted as the same hammer banging on the same nail. “So the ambulance came,” Fallon shouted right on the beat; “They took your pulse and packed up your things,” and the crowd of twentysomethings shouted right along with him—not only on the chorus but on the verses as well.

But it wasn’t exactly the Ramones, for Fallon’s lyrics and melody had Springsteenish touches. In the midst of an apparent drug overdose, the singer can’t resist a longing for Elvis Presley and Southern melodic accents. And second guitarist Alex Rosamilia, as he would all night, stood apart from band’s onrushing roar, adding high-pitched, chiming guitar figures as a counterpoint to Fallon’s lower-pitched riffing. Not for nothing did Rosamilia have an old Hall and Oates LP propped up on his amp.

The Ramones’ template is absolutely thrilling when distilled to a three-minute single, but the sameness of the approach dissipates the impact over the length of a 50-minute album or a 90-minute live set. Gaslight Anthem is still working out how to resolve that problem. The obvious solution is to emphasize its Springsteen influence a bit more so it balances out the bias toward the Ramones and gives the band a sound that resembles neither role model.

The Gaslight Anthem succeeds brilliantly on American Slang, one of the year’s best rock ‘n’ roll albums. The band had less success at the Rams Head, where it relied too heavily on its weaker 2008 disc The ’59 Sound, and was defeated by a muddy mix that negated two of its greatest strengths: Fallon’s lyrics and Rosamilia’s guitar figures. Too much of the night was devoted to fast, hard garage-rockers from The ’59 Sound, full of garbled vocals and sound-alike chord progressions.

When the band turned to its newer record, though, its inner R&B came out on songs such as “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.” On these, the band learned to vary the dynamics and momentum enough to let the mixed feelings of Fallon’s mature songwriting shine through. On “Bring It On,” the singer can’t decide what to do with a wife who’s “tired of these vows,” whether to let her go or fight to get her back. So he does both, challenging her “cool” boyfriend’s claims and daring her to “give me the children you don’t want to raise.”

And on the new album’s title track, an unapologetic rock ‘n’ roll anthem, Rosamilia’s bell-ringing guitar figure had audience members bouncing with fists above their heads, as Fallon’s hoarse, clarion wailing declared, “The fortunes came for the richer men/ while we’re left with the gallows. . . . Here’s where we died that time last year/ and here’s where the angels and devils meet.” Here’s where the poets and punks meet.