I came to the Riviera Theatre Saturday night expecting to be an impartial observer to the beginnings of late aughts nostalgia. The sentiment that began to bubble when Obama left office is now a wave, cresting as flash-points from the era mark a decade.
I had taken part in these retro celebrations before, but always without a memory of first contact; the other attendees remembered the music at its release, had found it at a more tender age, when they had more hair and less belly, and, maybe, a better life.
In August of 2008, the Gaslight Anthem released The ‘59 Sound, an album of catchy punk that trafficked in finding a glimmer of hope in desperate times. The New Jersey band couldn’t avoid the Springsteen comparisons, as it drew just as much from working class folklore as he did; they hadn’t been around for the industrial boom, and couldn’t help but imagine how good of times it must have been.
The band took a hiatus in 2015, but reformed this year to celebrate 10 years since its breakthrough album. The tour that includes The ’59 Sound in full opened in Toronto and will close with three nights in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Its stop in Chicago drew a mass of people, former and current punks, most inching from their mid to late 20s.
The crowd in the standing room pushed back up to the bar, and in the balcony there was little but the odd open seat. Canadian Matt Mays took the stage before the Gaslight Anthem. Mays, coming off his latest album Once Upon a Hell of a Time , turned his heartfelt tunes up a few levels for a genuinely adrenaline-pumping set.
The electricity in the room didn’t quite sting until the first notes of ’59 Sound opener “Great Expectations” rang out, and I was swept up as the balcony took to its feet. The guitar lick followed by burst of drums and vocals was the closest thing I’ve felt to time travel, like the memory of certain foods from childhood. The title track and “Old White Lincoln,” still the band’s two biggest hits, followed. The energy they generated powered the rest of the show, filled with the deeper cuts from the album.
The band makes nostalgic music in the first place, and everyone in attendance appeared to be feeling very vividly the yearning that frontman Brian Fallon expressed. Every word was sung along with by at least a dozen people, with almost unanimous participation during the better-known songs, the ones more prone to fist-pumping.
The spotlight remained firmly on Fallon, unassuming with a buzzcut and denim jacket. Fallon didn’t speak a word to the audience until most of the way through the show, when he interjected a sort of intermission with a rambling, one-sided, 10-minute conversation with the audience. By that point, the lack of sufficient air conditioning had taken its toll, and I joined the people already slipping away, as the band ran through its last few songs after finishing up “The 59 Sound.” I left as Mays joined the band to duet on “National Anthem.”
For the first time I didn’t need to imagine the nostalgia that saddles bands whose biggest days are behind them. I didn’t have to picture what it would have been like to hear the songs for the first time, to have them soundtrack pivotal moments, because a few Gaslight Anthem songs did that in my teens. Almost against my will, the band catapulted me back to those times, and left me to realize that this was just the first of many.