Just shy of seven years ago, I had the opportunity to weasel my way in to a Northeastern University student-only show at what was basically a slightly oversized Starbucks in that institution’s student center. The show was a one-off that featured support from Matt Pryor of The Get Up Kids (amongst others) and headliner Brian Fallon, then still very-much active in The Gaslight Anthem. It was very much a unique experience – I’m still not entirely sure how it came together – as Fallon wasn’t really doing the “solo performer” thing at that point. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, he came without a setlist and essentially took requests all night. Oh, and he told stories. Boy, did he tell stories; funny, insightful, spontaneous stories. Lots of stories. At one point, Fallon even caught himself realizing he was talking a lot, joking that he was going to stop playing songs and just talk because, let’s face it, it was a free show, so nobody had actually paid to be there (to which an audience member fired back the fact that it cost $45,000 a year to go to Northeastern at the time).
Boy have things changed in the seven years since that one-of-a-kind event
. Gaslight would go on to produce two more albums, go on hiatus and recently reunite for a run of The ’59 Sound 10th Anniversary shows. Divorce and children and remarriage and being interviewed by me and all of the things that come with being in your mid-30s happened. Fallon has gone on to produce two solo albums of his own: 2016’s Painkillers and this February’s Sleepwalkers. Finally, this week marked the first dates on what’s being called the Songs From The Hymnal tour, an international run that features opener Craig Finn (himself on his third solo album to go along with a successful decade-long run as frontman for Minneapolis-cum-Brooklyn rock band The Hold Steady) and headliner Fallon appearing sans backing bands. Just two men, a couple acoustic guitars, a Korg, and a collective several decade’s worth of stories.
Night one of the US run took place last Tuesday at Royale in Boston, a venue that’s got a capacity approximately 500% larger than that student center cafe at Northeastern (though it also has 100% fewer working Starbucks within its walls). Finn kicked things off with a 45-minute set culled mostly from his past solo efforts: 2012’s Clear Heart, Full Eyes, 2015’s Faith In The Future and last year’s stellar We All Want The Same Things, with an old Hold Steady song and a couple of new solo tracks thrown in for good measure. Though he’s long been publicly affiliated with both Minnesota and, more recently, Brooklyn, Finn was born a short cab ride away from the Royale in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, a place he’d return when it was time for college (Finn went to BC). No matter what project he’s spearheading, Finn’s songwriting style has largely focused on storytelling anyway, having created characters and scenes and interactions and feelings that mirror the struggles of trying to get by in the world. To that end, a performance like this was right in Finn’s wheelhouse. One of his new tracks, “Magic Marker,” is one of the most compelling tales I’ve heard performed in a live setting, grabbing the listener and forcing her/him to pay attention to the story. The most relatable moment I have to compare it to was the first time I heard Dave Hause’s “Autism Vaccine Blues,” which was a new song he’d been woodshedding on the road prior to recording 2013’s “Devour.”
After a standard length set changeover, Fallon strode downstairs to the stage, picked up his acoustic, and strummed his way into a subdued version of “Forget-Me-Not,” the lead single from Sleepwalkers. Normally an up-tempo sing-along, this version was a more delicate (almost unrecognizably so) ode to his relationship with his wife. The setlist from there was a bit more structured than the Northeastern show seven years prior, but not by a lot. Where Finn’s set seemed thought out and his stories were focused, Fallon seemed to opt for more of a “rough outline” approach, seemingly allowing his stories to meander and to feed off some of the spontaneous feedback from the crowd. Some of Fallon’s stories are raw and painful, particularly when dealing with death or with his break-up (which wasn’t necessarily mentioned specifically, except with a nod to the crowd who “have been around a while, most of you know the story at this point.” Some of the stories were funny, especially when the razor-witted Fallon was riffing off-the-cuff. I’m not going to divulge many of the specific details, because I feel like that takes away from the experience for those who haven’t seen a show on this tour yet.
But in case you were wondering, the set was comprised of songs from Fallon’s solo career obviously, plus a handful of Gaslight favorites (“Great Expectations,” “Film Noir”) that came with particularly insightful oral histories. “Ladykiller,” from Fallon’s The Horrible Crowes side project with Ian Perkins also made an appearance. There were a handful of songs from the written setlist (3 of the original 19 tracks) that didn’t appear, as it would appear Fallon ran out of time because some of his stories took some lengthy side roads. It was a fun and memorable and compelling night that allowed both songwriters lyrics to take on new weight and gravity due to the stripped down musical accompaniment. While both men have storied careers fronting high-powered rock bands, both are equally capable of commanding a stage with little additional support. Go see this tour. Seriously.
Head below for our photo recap!