The last time I saw the Gaslight Anthem headline a show was in August for The ‘59 Sound record release show at the Knitting Factory, a venue that holds about 300 people in its main room. Two months after that, I saw them play two nights with Rise Against at the Roseland Ballroom where only a few people were familiar with the band. Needless to say, they probably won over a fair amount of the people who saw them play one of those nights because they sold out Webster Hall. It’s been exciting watching their fanbase grow in the two years since Sink or Swim came out and the band seemed bewildered by the feat. It was the first night of the tour and Philadelphia’s Good Old War and Cincinnati, Ohio’s Heartless Bastards were brought along for the fun.
Good Old War played a brand of folk that didn’t seem to engage the audience too much but their catchy songwriting made for an enjoyable set. It was interesting to see the members fluctuate instruments, from drums to accordion; from acoustic guitar to piano; and from acoustic guitar to electric guitar, sometimes within the same song. Their MySpace says they sound like Wilco and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Take with that what you will. Listening to their songs now, I regret not picking up their record.
Heartless Bastards came out at 7:45 instead of 8:00, I suspect to add 15 minutes to their set. They were a standard rock band that the audience got into a little bit more. More people seemed familiar with them, perhaps due to their Pitchfork and New York Times reviews. The singer had a deep voice for a woman. They played their album’s title track, “The Mountain,” and the power ballad “Hold Your Head High,” which seemed to resonate with a few people. At one point, they created a kind of wall of sound that reminded me of Against Me!’s “Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists,” but not nearly as powerful. They played about 12 songs total and left the stage at 8:30.
As for Gaslight, it was the first time that I didn’t see Brian Fallon smile for the entire set. At times, his facial expression was almost angry as they played. The band played a good portion of The ‘59 Sound up front, saving most of the Sink or Swim material for the end of the set proper and encore. While playing Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust,” Fallon did an admirable Eddie Vedder impression and said how much he liked the “Singles” soundtrack. My requests for “Left of the Dial” went ignored after he mentioned Paul Westerberg’s contribution to that album.
The most poignant moment of the show was towards the end of the set, during the beginning of “Here’s Looking at You, Kid,” as Brian smiled and shrugged after he sang “I’m famous now for all of these rock and roll songs.” Coincidentally, the funniest moment of the show happened just before that, as Brian introduced the song. Two women came up to the front of the stage, asked around for what Alex Levine’s name was and then screamed “Alex!” to get his attention. He waved and then one of the women flashed him as he turned around and ignored them for the rest of the night. Their futile attempts to get his attention again by crowd surfing were equally hilarious
All in all, you could tell it was one of Gaslight’s first times headlining a big place like Webster Hall in America, but they did their best and the audience sang along to most every word. Time will tell if they get used to playing places of this size or bigger, but I think we can all tell that they’re getting there.