In March of 2020, Gaslight Anthem existed somewhere in the ether, and frontman Brian Fallon was about to release his third solo record Local Honey, a primarily acoustic collection of very personal songs. He planned on supporting that release with a tour that was to make a stop at Race Street Live in Holyoke, MA. Then the pandemic changed the world. The show was momentarily rescheduled for early 2021, that didn’t happen either. Gaslight Anthem made a triumphant return, both to the stage and with their powerful new record History Books, but during a brief lull, Fallon took time for a short Northeast tour three years in the making. Spoiler Alert – it was worth the wait!
The night began with fellow New Jersey singer-songwriter Jonathan Francis. Francis’ brief acoustic set showed strong songwriting that felt in the vein of Fallon’s work. Fallon brought Francis out during his main set and mentioned how the two are friends and how much he respects his work. If you’re a fan of the “New Jersey sound” and just the feel that comes from the Asbury Park scene, Jonathan Francis is definitely a talent to watch.
Fallon took the stage with his trusty Gibson acoustic, obviously in good spirits, chatting with the crowd and an elementary school-aged girl right in front who was wondering if she would need earplugs (Fallon assured her and her mom that she wouldn’t). After a few minutes of good-natured banter with the packed crowd, Fallon started the night with “Positive Charge” from the previously mentioned History Books. Seeing Brian solo, as opposed to fronting the band, is a much different experience. When I had the opportunity to catch Gaslight Anthem this past May in Wallingford, CT, there was little interaction with the crowd. The focus was solely on the music. On his own, he told lengthy stories leading into each song, at times assuring the crowd that he would make sure there was still enough time to play every song even with the stories.
The stories, however, were an important part of the night. Whether it was writing the Painkillers record with Butch Walker, discussing his favorite drink (a Cosmopolitan) or a touching and hilarious story of calling Bruce Springsteen for advice that eventually led to their collaboration on “History Books”, Fallon’s humor helps frame some of the darker themes of his songs. When a crowd member referred to “The Blues, Mary” as her favorite sad song, Fallon chuckled and replied, “They’re all sad”. But that’s the thing with a great songwriter, and make no mistake, Fallon is in the rarified air of great songwriters, a “sad” song isn’t just a sad song, it’s a song that makes you look deeper into your own life, makes you feel the emotions of things long past and the joy and triumph of having overcome them.
The 14-song set was made up of a handful of Gaslight Anthem tracks (“Positive Charge”, “History Books”, “Great Expectations”, & “The Navesink Banks”) a majority of his Painkillers record (“A Wonderful Life”, “Nobody Wins”, “Red Lights”, “Rosemary”, “Painkillers”, “Smoke”, & “The Blues, Mary”) and three from Local Honey (“When You’re Ready”, “Vincent”, “You Have Stolen My Heart”). The hopefulness of the Local Honey songs marks an interesting contrast to the despair of the Painkillers tracks released 4 years prior and shows the evolution of Fallon’s personal life.
Seeing Gaslight Anthem again this past May ignited a spark in me. With the band on hiatus, I had almost forgotten how beautifully devastating their catalog can be. Seeing Fallon in this element, just a mic and an acoustic guitar is another reminder that a great song can transcend its subject matter and imprint itself on the life of the listener. Thank you, Brian Fallon, for once again reminding us all of the inherent beauty of rock & roll.