With This Pen…

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Just over a week ago I was at the Hammersmith Apollo watching The Gaslight Anthem (a band I never thought I’d get to see) and so taking inspiration from a friend of mine’s frequent music missives on Facebook I thought I would be a bit of music nerd and write about it. I hope you’ll indulge this writer a little.

So how did I find myself in London stood with my partner having made the pilgrimage down to London, bouncing up and down on my heals clutching my new band t-shirt?

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Well let’s start nine years ago with a different artist. In case you weren’t aware I am something of an American Football fan and in 2009 Bruce Springsteen played the half time show of the Super Bowl. Now Springsteen had basically passed me by at this point. I knew a couple of the famous songs and there was the obligatory copy of Born In The USA floating round my parents kitchen but I didn’t know him. The reason a band plays the Super Bowl is exposure (and occasionally because they’re football fans) and thanks to the fact that I was signed up to a music service not everyone had heard of in 2009 called Spotify, I was able to deep dive into his back catalogue and discover the artist completely separate from the bombastic Born in the USA arrangement and actually learn what that particular song is about.

Later that same year Springsteen played a headline set at Galstonbury and thanks to the BBC’s coverage I caught one of those moments that happen at festivals, when Springsteen joined a band called The Gaslight Anthem to play the title track from their current album The ’59 Sound.

Did you hear the ‘59 sound coming through on grandmother’s radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favourite song one last time?

The ’59 Sound

I wish it was a cooler story, but sales of the album basically doubled after that moment and I was one of those people having been listening to it a lot on Spotify.

I love the band and listened to their albums a lot. The ’59 Sound and its sequel American Slang still remind me of lifting weights in the garage of my old flat in Leicester and walking to work. However, I am not always great at converting loving a band to seeing them live and I never spotted the opportunity and after 2014’s Get Hurt that band went on hiatus and that was it.

The ’59 Sound is probably the defining album of The Gaslight Anthem and there’s a great oral history of the album and that Glastonbury moment here on The Ringer. I really enjoyed it and dug out my playlists and started listening and that might have been it had serendipity in the form of my friend Nat hadn’t stepped in.

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We then get chatting and then she mentions that they’re playing a show in London because as usual I’d missed the news that a band was touring, in this case to celebrate a decade since the release of The ’59 Sound. It’s one of those general bits of advice that float around these days that you won’t regret the money you spend on experiences and so having embraced this in recent years, particularly with music having had Chris Cornell pass away and feeling so lucky to see him a couple of times I got tickets.

And with this pen, I thee wed
From my heart to your distress”

Handwritten

So there I am bouncing up and down ready for the band and they open up with Handwritten. I’m not great at learning song lyrics. Hell it’s not exactly unusual for me to swap lines round when singing backup in my own band and I generally only have a few lines to learn per song. I have always grabbed snippets that speak to me and carry those fragments rattling round in my head. I’ve always loved the refrain at the end of Handwritten and although goosebumps rose almost as soon as the band starts playing, with the crowd singing along including me during the bits I could drag from my memory but when that refrain starts… it’s damn near perfect. That’s the joy of music to me, those brief glimpses of something other shared between bandmates, friends, and strangers forming a temporary community.

I understand the comparisons to Springsteen that get made, but for me it is to do with coming from a similar place and writing stories about people, but it’s different because how could it not be? There’s a propulsion to the majority of The Gaslight Anthem’s songs born of their punk influences but they have the secret weapon of Alex Rosamilia’s lead guitar work. Stood stage right and bent over his guitar he adds the lift of near continuous hooks as Brian sings his songs. That night Alex Levine casts a literal shadow on the venue’s wall as he steps up to sing backup while playing bass. I’m not one to obsess over drums parts when listening to albums so it’s not until I see the guys live that I gain a new respect for Benny Horowitz’s kinetic drumming that brings more subtlety than I had recognised as the band motor through their set. Apart from a few extended chats they rattle through the songs, including a straight play through of The ’59 Sound which doesn’t drag thanks to the quality of the album, an album that was apparently conceived with the songs in that order before they had even recorded the album.

I can’t reproduce the night for you, those moments live on in the memory of those of us who were there, but I can share a Spotiy playlist of the set list, which for me has a layer of memories created that night that I’ll be holding on to as long as I can.

If I close my eyes I could still be there.

“Mary, this station is playing every sad song
I remember like we were alive
I heard it Sunday morn’ from inside of these walls
In a prison cell, where we spent those nights

And they burned up the diner where I always used to find her
Licking young boys’ blood from her claws
And I learned about the blues from this kitten I knew
Her hair was raven and her heart was like a tomb

My heart’s like a wound”

Great Expectations

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