Punks and Poets: The Gaslight Anthem at Rams Head Live, Sept. 28
Before his manager intervened, Bruce Springsteen originally meant to give his song â€śHungry Heartâ€ť 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 guitarâ€”even Fallonâ€™s staccato lead vocalsâ€”all acted as the same hammer banging on the same nail. â€śSo the ambulance came,â€ť Fallon shouted right on the beat; â€śThey took your pulse and packed up your things,” and the crowd of twentysomethings shouted right along with himâ€”not only on the chorus but on the verses as well.
But it wasnâ€™t exactly the Ramones, for Fallonâ€™s lyrics and melody had Springsteenish touches. In the midst of an apparent drug overdose, the singer canâ€™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 Fallonâ€™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 â€™59 Sound, and was defeated by a muddy mix that negated two of its greatest strengths: Fallon’s lyrics and Rosamiliaâ€™s guitar figures. Too much of the night was devoted to fast, hard garage-rockers from The â€™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 â€śThe Diamond Church Street Choirâ€ť and â€śThe Queen of Lower Chelsea.â€ť On these, the band learned to vary the dynamics and momentum enough to let the mixed feelings of Fallonâ€™s mature songwriting shine through. On â€śBring It On,” the singer canâ€™t decide what to do with a wife whoâ€™s â€śtired of these vows,” whether to let her go or fight to get her back. So he does both, challenging her â€ścoolâ€ť boyfriendâ€™s claims and daring her to â€śgive me the children you donâ€™t want to raise.”
And on the new album’s title track, an unapologetic rock ‘n’ roll anthem, Rosamiliaâ€™s bell-ringing guitar figure had audience members bouncing with fists above their heads, as Fallon’s hoarse, clarion wailing declared, â€śThe fortunes came for the richer men/ while weâ€™re left with the gallows. . . . Here’s where we died that time last year/ and here’s where the angels and devils meet.” Hereâ€™s where the poets and punks meet.