The Gaslight Anthem's final headline show and the legacy they will leave
In London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, halfway through The Gaslight Anthem’s last headline show before an indefinite hiatus, I turned to my friend Rob and half shouted, half laughed, “I am so glad we’re here!” It was probably slurred and full of expletives, but that was the gist.
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Gaslight Anthem. My parents got me into Pearl Jam and Counting Crows, whilst my early musical discoveries were alternative artists such as Bright Eyes and punk bands like The Loved Ones. The Gaslight Anthem occupies the space between those three, so I get why I’m more susceptible to their charms than most, although I do still see the issues many people have with the band.
These problems largely stem from the bands relationship with the press. After the success of The ’59 Sound they were hailed as the ‘saviour’ of rock’n’roll. The album draws wonderfully from the classic sounds of Springsteen and combines it with the punk spirit of the scene they emerged from. Springsteen even joined them on stage a few times, but this endorsement soon became more of a curse than a blessing. They were constantly compared to him by critics, or accused of rehashing lyrical clichés about ‘Maria’ and New Jersey. This took its toll on the band and particularly lead singer Brian Fallon, who clashed with crowds and for a time withdrew from social media entirely.
You could argue this should come with the territory when you write about and share stages with your heroes, but when the band plays live you realise how unfair a lot of it is. The first five songs from their Shepherds Bush set all came from different releases across an almost ten year period, with each release being thematically and sonically distinctive from the last. They moved from the rock’n’roll singalongs of Handwritten, to the basement punk of Drive and to the haunting blues of Sweet Morphine, and they did it seamlessly. The sounds are drawn from well-established styles, but influences are always combined and pushed through Gaslight’s unique filter that incorporates punk rhythms, wandering guitar lines and Fallon’s lyrical combinations of third person stories with brutally honest confessions. Besides, why does the fact something has been done before make it less enjoyable? If you read Pitchfork religiously do you refuse to eat granola until Jamie XX remixes it? “It’s still granola; it’s just pushing the limits of what granola can be.”
Despite the occasion, the performance was more focused on music than sentimentality. Gaslight raced through their catalogue, throwing out fan favourites like the jaunty, acoustic She Loves You, the raucous Howl, and the jazz infused Diamond Church Street Choir. This mid-set salvo is followed by the self-affirming Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts, with the so typically Gaslight refrain “We like our choruses sung together, We like our arms in our brothers' arms” being sung back, and believed, by pretty much everyone in the room. Throughout the set the band barely talks, and the fact this might be their last headline show is not mentioned. Everyone knows, but there is no sense that this is a sad occasion.
This could in part be attributed to a great choice of venue in The Empire, which is a beautiful old theatre with a sizeable standing area, yet is still small enough to make everyone feel like they’re in some secret party. It’s noticeably different to their November tour when the band seemed overly concerned with being an ‘arena band’ in the larger venues. Perhaps it was because of the distance to the audience, perhaps it was the added weight of being where the artists they’ve so often been compared to play, but in regards to simply having fun and connecting with the audience something wasn’t quite there. That was never an issue in the Empire though, with the show being relaxed and intimate throughout.
An indication of this comfortableness could be the band not playing a single cover, something I’ve never seen in their headline shows. The only outside influence was bringing out Frank Turner for Great Expectations, which was another joyous moment, characterised by embraces and Brian joking about putting Frank on the other side of the stage because he’s too tall to stand next to him. This is the beginning of the final act as they move in to the heavy hitters like 45 and American Slang. The printed set list showed they were originally planning to end on We’re Getting A Divorce, You Keep The Diner, indicative of their sense of humour, but they move that up and decide not to torture us by closing with The ’59 Sound instead. There’s no encore.
The following day Gaslight played their final show before hiatus on Reading’s mains stage. They didn’t mention the hiatus once, and rather than their multiple singles that received Radio 1 exposure they opened with Have Mercy, the solemn, slow closer from their last album, Get Hurt. This is a heart wrenching song about Fallon’s divorce, but he sang the haunting refrain of “Now your pretty horse is running wild and free, You can go and find a lover, baby better than me” with the biggest smile on his face. It was beautiful because it was so clear that this is simply what Brian Fallon loves doing. He loves being on big stages and playing in a band that makes records for 33rpm not 128 kbit/s, and there’s not one thing wrong with that.
You can create music to push boundaries or to be as intellectual as possible, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. More power to you. I hope you get as big as Radiohead and enjoy not playing your most famous song to a crowd that paid to see you. But you can also just create music because making music is fun, and The Gaslight Anthem being a rock band because they loved being in a rock band is a wonderful thing. Not trying to appease critics who want them to sound like they’ve never heard Bruce Springsteen or the fans who thought they sold out the minute they stopped playing Jersey basements, just playing for themselves. That’s why this show made me feel so good. I might never see them again, but if that is the case I got to see them free from any pressures, just five guys who were enjoying being in a band called The Gaslight Anthem.
Afterwards Rob and I went to the pub, decided to trade jumpers and missed the last tube home. It’s the kind of silly stuff we’ve done for years, at house parties, clubs and one time a Belgian festival. It’s the kind of silly stuff millions of drunken people have done before us, but they’ve never done it exactly like us and we had fun doing it, and essentially that’s why I love The Gaslight Anthem. I listen to Pearl Jam and I listen to Springsteen, but I never felt like them. I never related to them. I never grew up waiting for them to release new music. I grew up waiting for The Gaslight Anthem, so to me it’s all the others that sound like them.