The sordid details of my tempestuous and lustful affair with thunderous, blue-influenced, rock music have never been disclosed to another human being. It’s fitting that the first thirty seconds of “Whole Lotta Love,” a song that is notoriously and explicitly sexual, is responsible for pushing me into such a volatile relationship.
I have been both elated and disillusioned with the many forms it has taken over our decade plus engagement, pulling away many times only to stumble back into its sweat drenched arms, nostalgic for the raw and visceral. Each renewed passion proves to be less fervent than the previous, the flame gradually smothered by a desperate exhaustion. After every break up we have had (and there have been many), I always seem to walk away shaking my head, wondering, “Can it ever sound new again?”
That was a fairly long preamble for what will essentially become an overwhelmingly positive concert review, but I guess I needed to lay the gauntlet down. The Gaslight Anthem and Heartless Bastards took over Mr. Smalls on March 29, a cool Sunday evening that provided some much needed heat and excitement, injecting my weathered blues rock lover with a mainline of ardor. The sound I had loved and left 12 times over was now strutting on stage, blasting me with gem after gem of tortured rock genius. As much as I admire rapid experimentalism and the general mutilation of popular music that many independent acts today tend to showcase, I forgot how exhilarating it was to witness hearty, passionate, poetic rock and roll light the stage on fire.
I was seriously anticipating Heartless Bastards live,wondering if Erika Wennerstrom’s howl would be dwarfed by the larger than life guitar canvasses her band erects with nearly every song. Luckily, her vocals soared with effortless authority, especially on the stunning album opener from the Bastards latest, “The Mountain,” through a no nonsense set that provided very few lulls. The guitar work was tight but expansive, showcased by the heavier tracks in the band’s arsenal such as “Came a Long Way” and “No Pointing Arrows” off their 2006 effort All This Time, and the barn burning “Early in the Morning” from this year’s The Mountain.
Heartless Bastards no frills, shit kicking music was embraced by the packed house for the robust volume of their set list, 14 tracks in all I believe, and the sheer, unmitigated aura of cool they omitted. Coming fresh off the marathon that is South by Southwest, Heartless Bastards put on a show that was economical and passionate in the same stroke, staying on just long enough to keep the crowd happy but never wearing out their welcome. They easily crushed some healthy blues rock and laid significant ground work to establish a welcoming, passionate vibe for headliners The Gaslight Anthem, and everyone seemed anxious if the expectations would met.
Luckily, YET AGAIN, for the crowd, The Gaslight Anthem wasted no time to unleash a blistering rendition of “Great Expectations,” the staggeringly sweet, raucous, and rocking album opener from the band’s latest, 59′ Sound. The Jersey boys played the part, resembling punked up greasers, complete with tight dago t’s, tattoo sleeves, and enough mousse to make Jesse Katsopolis jealous. By the time the album title track rolled around, and lead singer Brian Fallon pondered “Well I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go” the crowed might as well have been parked on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, NJ (unfortunately, some pittsburghers might gag at that thought) getting ready to cruise the strip in a beat up 62′ Oldsmobile.
Make no qualms about it, these boys are disciples of Bruce (and to a lesser extent The Replacements) especially Fallon, who actually related a few Springsteen anecdotes in between songs, including a surprisingly accurate impersonation of the patron saint of New Jersey rock. He talked about the first time he met Springsteen, which was only a month ago, and how Bruce said he admired 59′ Sound, playing it in his car all the time when he would cart his daughter around northern Jersey.
Fallon sincerely confessed he had no idea what do with that information. Initially shocked that Bruce Springsteen had actually heard his band, he couldn’t get past the surreal image association of his band’s music with the day to day activities of the Springsteen family. As far as concert banter goes, that’s the kind of shit the people want to hear, the soft humility behind mounting success. Along with the gushing appreciation for the crowd, the venue, which the band played with the Bouncing Souls a very, very long time ago, and the general honesty of the band’s entire package, the show felt more like a celebration of a local band who made a name for themselves than a national touring act wisping through Pittsburgh en route to fifteen other cities.
I’m surprised people weren’t hugging each other as they poured out on to the Millvale streets, promising each other they’d keep in touch over the coming spring and summer. One song, specifically, brought the whole experience full circle late in the Anthem’s set. “Miles Davis & The Cool,” a somber, trembling anthem drenched in nostalgia (like all their best tracks) seemed to encapsulate the feeling of the night, with Fallon singing “Don’t wait too long to come home./My have the years of our youth passed on./Don’t wait too long to come home./I’ll leave the front light on./The night is our own.”
As sentimental and overblown as that statement may be, it reminded me about the ways in which rock music can become spiritual and transformative, capable of painting the perfect moment for thousands of people to revel in simultaneously. The Hold Steady have done this for years, and The Gaslight Anthem have years to go. I remember a quote from the legendary D. Boon of hardcore stalwarts The Minutemen, while he was discussing the different themes which appeared repeatedly in their music, which he summarized in simple but earnest statement, “I’m not religious about god, I’m religious about man.” The Gaslight Anthem and Heartless Bastards put on a show bursting with fervor from the outset, preaching a life affirming gospel even the most jaded rock purist will embrace as the truth.