A cursory listen to the Gaslight Anthem’s new album, Handwritten, might lead you to think that the band is made up of Luddites in punk garb. Starting with the lead single “45” (as in RPM) and continuing through the title track, Brian Fallon and company are vocal about their commitment to outdated technology. This attitude is nothing new for fans—the band’s breakthrough 2008 album was called The ’59 Sound, and on it, Fallon dealt in the bygone American imagery of greasers, fast cars and hazy film references. But on Handwritten, Fallon sounds as if he’s purposefully defining himself against contemporary culture.
So it was a nice surprise Friday night at the Riviera to find out that Fallon is quite the charming, wry and self-deprecating frontman. Throughout the band’s Handwritten-heavy set, Fallon cracked wise about the necessity of encores and the band’s previous difficulties getting gigs in Chicago, adding a surprising dose of levity to the night. After walking on to Van Halen’s “Jump,” the quintet kicked in to “High Lonesome,” one of the many high points from The ’59 Sound.
The capacity crowd responded rabidly to these older cuts and the more upbeat gems from Handwritten (“45,” “Howl”). Live, the former quartet added guitar tech Ian Perkins on a third guitar, adding some definite heft to its sound. The Gaslight Anthem’s blend of sprightly punk chops with heartland rock & roll sounded suitably huge, even at a larger venue like the Riv. Fallon and company have emerged from the basement, but their set still showed some growing pains as they transition to playing to larger and larger crowds.
Positioned alongside the band’s older material from Sink or Swim, The ’59 Sound and American Slang, some new songs like “Mulholland Drive” and “Too Much Blood” sounded lumbering and a little self-serious. The punked-up swing that pulses through songs like “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” disappeared on “Too Much Blood,” replaced with hulking rock chords. On Friday, the anthemic tune “The Patient Ferris Wheel” followed the set’s most plodding numbers (“Biloxi Parish” and “Too Much Blood”), and the difference was striking. Crowd surfers materialized, the mosh pit started again, and guitarist Alex Rosamilia’s clever melody lines returned.
I’m not saying the Gaslight Anthem should endlessly remake The ’59 Sound, but ditching some of its strengths—Rosamilia’s intuitive guitar melodies and that signature Gaslight Anthem swing—for lumbering, traditional rock seems like a misstep. And largely, I think the band realizes this position: Its set opened and closed with poignant older numbers, and the crowd loved it. Though the new album might suggest a band growing overly serious, the Gaslight Anthem is thankfully still the amiable American punk group around the corner, in the midst of some growing pains.