Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon's Jersey-born worldview is pure escapism, fueled by a yearning desire to live and breathe in another era, where nights filled with girls, cars, and songs on the radio were all anyone needed to survive. It's littered with Bruce Springteen-like clichés, for sure, but the emotions are pure and universal and affecting, as Fallon's solo acoustic set at NYC's jam-packed Bowery Ballroom Friday night proved.
Even with his aw-shucks, everyman persona, Fallon has big aspirations, and if he'd like to be mentioned alongside rock'n'roll's best performers someday, he'd better start working on his stage banter. "Tonight, I plan to ruin everything by talking," Fallon said. It was self-deprecating, exaggerated -- and, unfortunately, on target.
In between songs, Fallon rambled, chuckled, and yapped far too much, often barely speaking into the microphone. Maybe it was nerves -- he hasn't played by himself often, and certainly not before sold-out rooms -- but the singer's anxious chatter drifted from charming to distracting quite quickly.
That was until he played his Gaslight Anthem songs. Within a few bars, the din of conversation would shift completely into sing-along, the crowd crying along with Fallon's best hooks. "We were always waiting for something to happen," they shouted on "Great Expectations." They cooed along to the somber chorus of Gaslight's best ballad, "Bluejeans & White T-Shirts." And they sang back "High Lonesome," in which Fallon riffs off lyrics by the Boss and Counting Crows.
It's not just those pinched lyrics that make the Gaslight Anthem's sound feel like a rock radio mixtape. There's a little bit of Springsteen's blue-collar storytelling, a touch of Petty's lovelorn blues, a bit of Social Distortion's barroom punk. And just as he's not afraid to slip other people's lyrics into his own songs, Fallon had no qualms about devoting a third of his setlist from covers.
There were successful, earnest renderings of American classics -- Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," Patty Griffin's "Long Ride Home" -- and a look back at Fallon's own musical adolescence, via a ramshackle cover of Screaming Trees' "Dollar Bill," off 1991's excellent grunge blueprint, Sweet Oblivion.
Other indie dudes have better luck covering cheeky pop songs, particularly Fallon's fellow Jersey boy Ted Leo. A take on Kelly Clarkson's "I Do Not Hook Up" was awkward and poorly wrought, and Fallon could have just said he liked listening to Tegan and Sara, rather than playing their song "Call It Off" as a duet with Loved Ones frontman Dave Hause, who opened the show.
And while he closed the night with Social Distortion's "Ball & Chain," and needed a lyric sheet to do so, it was Fallon's own mantras that resonated as the crowd spilled out onto Delancey Street. "We are the last of the jukebox romeos," he sings on "We Came to Dance." "Came to sing out a chorus, reinvent the good times." As long as Brian Fallon does just that, we'll all be okay.