Brian Fallon wants a sign. Specifically, The Gaslight Anthem's frontman wants a sign to be held aloft by a fan who requested, via Twitter, that the quartet perform a certain song tonight at the first of their UK comeback shows.
“The Boss gets a sign! Make a sign!” Fallon cries with mock indignation, knowing full well that a glittering sheet of poster paper is about to be carefully handed over the heads of the front few rows to him, front and centre on stage at the OVO Arena Wembley.
This tells us a few things. The most obvious is that The Gaslight Anthem’s sabbatical has done nothing to dull Fallon’s playful, and at times sharp-edged, sense of humour. It also suggests that he’s long-since put to bed his frustrations at his band constantly being referenced in the shadow of one of their biggest influences, Bruce Springsteen, whose patronage of his New Jersey brethren played a key role in breaking TGA beyond the punk community. Finally, we learn that if you hold up a fan's glittered-covered request to play Old White Lincoln, one of the many anthems contained on the band’s 2008 breakout album The ’59 Sound, you will end up with fingers flecked with gold sparkle. “It’s all over me now,” Fallon reflects, a neat physical metaphor suggesting that the music that he’s made, which has touched so many, still leaves its mark.
When The Gaslight Anthem embarked upon their hiatus, Fallon was vocal about his exasperation that a sizeable percentage of their audience were unwilling to let the quartet stray far from the template perfected on The '59 Sound. And tonight, inarguably, it’s still the songs from the punkier first half of the band’s career that draw the most enlivened response. To some, this is where TGA belong, and Fallon's later attempts to cross over into classic rock territory, seen as an attempt to court a broader demographic, are regarded as something of a betrayal. It's a viewpoint which largely depends upon when one discovered the band and personal musical preferences, but it means that whenever Gaslight Anthem play live, they must seek to strike a balance between two genres: it’s not easy and they appear to know it.
“I have written the absolute worst set list in the world… you are going to go home and curse us,” jokes Fallon early on. He’s done nothing of the sort, of course, but it quickly becomes apparent that tonight’s set loses momentum when it pinballs back and forth between the adrenal rush that pulsed through much of their first three albums – Sink Or Swim, The ’59 Sound and American Slang – and the slower, grungier fare from the second half of Handwritten and the mix and match of styles on Get Hurt, their most recent and least-loved collection, from which five of the 22 songs on tonight's setlist originate.
There are other factors which dilute the impact of what should be a triumphant return from Fallon's band. By far the largest venue they’re playing on this UK run, Wembley appears to be a shade over half-full – a situation doubtless not helped by tonight’s rail strike – and while the band’s attempts to flesh out their sound to fill the stage and the space with some new ideas are laudable, the honky tonk piano extending the intro to The Diamond Church Street Choir is the only one that really lands. This storied venue may have a new name, but it remains a boxy, metallic space sucking the air out of songs which, in another setting, would have drawn us in with their nimble musicianship and unforgettable turns of phrase.
After just over 90 minutes of mixed results, the title track of The '59 Sound, always worth waiting for, roars into life like a classic 1950s auto, only to falter towards the end when a lengthy bridge and solo strands its traditional singalong with nowhere to go. It’s another final, somewhat frustrating, missed connection, and one imagines that Brian Fallon isn't blind to that fact. It remains to be seen how lessons learned on nights like this might impact upon Gaslight’s promised new album, but clearly TGA 2.0 have some decisions to make to ensure their return transcends mere nostalgia.