In the place where one of New York’s most iconic music venues, CBGB, used to stand, there is now a clothing store called John Varvatos, named after the guy who owns and runs it.
A former head of menswear design at Calvin Klein, Vavatos makes clothes for the capitalist fashionista. Want a plain white tee? That could cost you up to almost $200. Probably not what The Gaslight Anthem were referring to when they wrote Blue Jeans And White T-Shirts. The Ramones are surely turning in their graves.
Cleared of its overpriced inventory this evening, the store has once again become a venue. A secret album release show for competition winners and music industry folk, in addition to the New Jersey band there’s a free bar and a (rather great) supporting slot from local hero Jesse Malin. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of room to move, which makes it feel like all the more like a real venue. A nice twist to the evening is that, having closed the same year the band formed, CBGB was somewhere they’d never got to play.
They play their absolute hearts out, too. Most of it is songs from forthcoming fifth record, Get Hurt – 11 of that album’s 12 tracks get an airing, all but one of them for the very first time in public. In a recent interview, frontman Brian Fallon said he expected that only one out of every five reviewers would like Get Hurt. Whether that’s true or not, in this live setting, they sound absolutely formidable. The heavy, snarling riffs of opener Stay Vicious – the album’s first track – are devastating and bone-crushing but also tempered by a sophisticated catchy elegance.
It’s a sad, dark song, but the band – Fallon, guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine, drummer Benny Horowitz, who’s barely visible behind stacks of amps, and British-born guitarist Ian Perkins, who’s become a permanent, if not official, member – look like they’re having the time of their lives. Fallon smiles heartily throughout, and it’s clear that all five are really enjoying playing these songs. Helter Skeleton brims with heartfelt passion, the urgent surge of Rollin’ And Tumblin’ is a whirlwind of defiant urgency and the bluesy swagger of Red Violins is confident and fragile at the same time. Get Hurt might have been designed to display another side of the band, but tonight – and, it’s worth pointing out, on record – its songs pulse with the same desperation, the same blood, the same heart as ever. That’s nowhere more evident than during Selected Poems, the performance of which is exuberant and powerful, full of loss but also full of hope, made from the past but for the future.
The new songs fit perfectly alongside The ’59 Sound and Great Expectations, too. The only tracks from another album played tonight, they are, of course, the big ones, the hits, and the response is suitably epic. The store security guard steps in at the first sign of crowd surfing – something that definitely wouldn’t have happened at CBGB – but the vigour and vitality of the band suggests that their sense of purpose is absolutely at its peak. Fallon beams throughout both as he watches all the mouths singing back at him, but you get the sense that the other songs won’t be far behind in the future, once everyone knows the words.
There’s also a spectacular cover of House Of The Rising Sun and one of Get Hurt’s bonus tracks, Sweet Morphine, a tender hymnal for which Rosamilia switches to keyboard. It all ends with Dark Places, a rousing, pounding anthem that fights about the struggle that clearly inspired it. “If I thought it would help,” Fallon sings, his voice cracked yet commanding, “I would carve your name into my heart.” You believe him, too. This clearly marks the start of something new for the band, but they’re just as good, if not better, than they’ve ever been.