May 7, 2009, Recher Theatre, Towson, Maryland
The Gaslight Anthem released one of 2008’s best records, were a highlight of last summer’s Vans Warped Tour, released an fantastic 10″ on Record Store Day and are now on the verge of opening for perhaps their biggest influence, Bruce Springsteen. There really couldn’t be much more of a positive vibe or greater expectations (yeah, pun intended) coming into a show than that. Since seeing them on the Warped Tour back in August (and being out of town for their Baltimore stop a few months back), there is no band on the planet I was more excited to see again, especially as a headliner. Would it be worth the wait? I had to check out two other bands first to find out.
Good Old War played a set of indie-folk tunes full of subtly amazing musicianship and beautiful harmonies. They’re one of those bands who’s playing is intricate and amazing if you pay attention, yet could easily be enjoyed directly for its sweet combination of hooks and harmony. They never overwhelmed the music with anything flashy, despite clearly having the chops to pour it on had they trusted their music less.
Pela, who two years ago were listed by Rolling Stone as an “artist to watch” (take that however you will), were up next. Artists like Tom Petty, the Who, the Clash and the Replacements all came to mind as they ran through their set of straight-forward rock songs. That begs the question: What do these artists (Pela included) have in common? In light of tonight’s performance, the answer is that they cast aside self-importance, over-indulgence and pretensions, simply letting the songs speak for themselves. And that’s what made the set so powerful. The songs were solid, but more importantly, the performance made a connection. That’s why their cover of “Guns of Brixton” worked so well. In fact, that one rousing cover really says all that needs to be said about their set. Even the slightest hint of dishonesty would not just have killed the song, but their entire performance. It was bolder than maybe they even realized, but they nailed it.
Right now, the Gaslight Anthem may understand better than anyone else that there is one perfect formula for great rock and roll: Poor your heart out over a few chords and some colorful hooks and you can’t go wrong. It’s clear on the albums and it was clear tonight at the show. Though the two acts before them set a high bar, particularly in the way of just plain honesty, the Gaslight Anthem were still the evenings brightest light. Their honesty is, without compromise, a bit more creative and poetic than their peers. This night, they achieved an odd perfection that has nothing to do with note-for-note reproductions of the studio material. Instead, it is a perfect balance between songs, stories and a fantastic cover of “Left of the Dial.” When they open for Springsteen, I hope he pays attention. He just might (re-)learn a thing or two.