“Well it’s past quarter to three
And it’s past the midnight hour
Mustang Sally’s left the building
And we’re so much worse without her
If I could put down this old hammer
I’d take you somewhere new”
-Gaslight Anthem, “Casanova, Baby!”
I’ve said a million times that Gaslight Anthem reads on paper like a band I’d hate, from the pop-punk guitars so bright, clean and sharp you could shave with them to the cliché-riddled lyrics to the delivery that shifts from one influence to another as easily as if it was a G. Love and Special Sauce record… but the songs are so ingratiating, the hooks so big and swinging and they so adroitly walk the line between wistful and anthemic, between songs of death and desperation sung by what looks like the happiest guy on the planet, between the Saturday night at the party and Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week, that I was charmed when I saw them at Bernies and I’ve been charmed since.
And last night at the Newport, after a perfectly fine Heartless Bastards set - especially the steel-seared soaring title track from the new record, The Mountain – Gaslight Anthem walked onto a darkened stage before a damn-near-sold-out audience, and hit the first notes of “Great Expectations”… then lost the thread.
In their defense, sound was classically Newport-bad, within two songs shrieking feedback and completely dropped out vocals and a snare louder than everything else on the stage all made an appearance. And maybe they were just overcompensating for that. Maybe they’ve been on tour for a while and were worn out and drifting. Maybe they choked on headlining this size of venue and suddenly being that band when a couple of months ago they were opening for We March at venues this size and a month or three before that they were playing rooms a quarter of its size or less (the aforementioned Bernies).
But regardless, everything came out in the same full-bore assault, a torrent of words and riffs and shout-along gang vocals that smoothed everything subtle or reflective out to one impenetrable surface. I was surrounded by good friends to whom I’d, in many cases, talked this band up, and the room was packed with people raising cups and singing along, to a bunch of songs I’ve wanted to hear live since the last time I heard them live and I just couldn’t connect. The guy who’d let the drummer ride the rockabilly swing a little longer, or bring a punk rock club down with “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” was there, but his persona had a face lift. Orpheus got an image consultant.
But maybe it wasn’t cynical, maybe it was them giving a crowd what they think the newer, bigger crowd needs and trying to be all things to all rock and roll kids. And the packed pit crowd, shouting along and eating it all up, didn’t seem to mind. But I couldn’t help but thinking those crazed joy-junkies were singing along to the version of the band in their hearts and minds and not the version on stage.
Needing to believe in rock and roll again, I bummed a ride and made my way to Rumba for Garotas Suecas (Swedish girls), the Brazilian band in the US for SXSW touring behind one 7” and some T-shirts, and heart and balls to spare. Brazil has a particularly rich tradition of taking outside tradition, breathing new life into its lungs and showing it off richer, stronger, and recognizable but also recognizably new, from Villalobos to Jobim to Gil to Tom Ze to tropicalia to baile funk. And this tradition carried on through Garotas Secuas (Swedish Girls) who hit the stage with two guitars, bass, drums, keys, and a frontman who took Otis Redding and James Chance and Greg Cartwright and turned the voltage up too high until Frankenstein’s stitches melted, such a perfect amalgam it didn’t feel like an amalgam at all.
They played to the faithful on a Monday night in a tiny club and if there were 60 people there, 50 of us were dancing, completely lost in the perfect craft of the acid fried songs and the grooves you had to trust your body to follow, give yourself over to or get lost in more than one sense. By the walk home every bone in my body was sore and I wanted to hug anyone I saw and shout, “Did you see this? You need to see this!” First quarter over, already great as showgoing goes.