There’s a crackle of electricity in the dark, lights spark on the stage, and a skull and crossbones banner dramatically unfurls behind The Gaslight Anthem as they start to play.
The theatrical sense of occasion had been building as the band’s intro tape worked through their influences, from Springsteen’s Born to Run to The Replacements to AC/DC’s “Back in Black”.
Playing the Boss shows the renewed self-confidence of these other New Jersey rockers, whose UK prominence came when Springsteen shared stages with them at Glastonbury in 2009, as their breakthrough second album The ’59 Sound made them sound like his slavish devotees. Their singer-songwriter Brian Fallon became insular and prickly on the subject, flinching in fame’s glare.
An obsession with radio songs, records, cars, girls and the pre-existing rock’n’roll myth still runs through his lyrics, right up to last year’s album Handwritten. But they are closer to a sort of poetry now. And what’s really striking about Fallon tonight is the big grin he wears, almost kicking his heels in delight at playing. Behind him, the band barely relent from massive volume, and American punk velocity post-dating Springsteen’s world. The crowd packing this beautiful East End art deco ex-cinema respond by ditching the passive phone-cameras, for the older ritual of sweating the week’s work away to rock’n’roll.
Fallon looks coquettish during “American Slang”, and makes the goofily unselfconscious asides of a true music fan. If there’s a trace of Springsteen’s old E Street shuffle during “The Diamond Church Street Choir”’s working-class urban underdog tale, and the scratchy huskiness of the Boss’s voice there in Fallon’s during “Too Much Blood”’s tightly clenched drama, no one’s complaining. Whatever the sources, the bond with a crowd ranging from veteran Springsteen fans to polite German teenage punks is what counts. Fallon lets one fan on-stage to prove his point that he can play guitar, looking amused as the young man predictably milks his part.
The Gaslight Anthem’s problem remains a uniformity that’s amplified live - Fallon’s side-project, The Horrible Crowes, is where he boxes up any urge to experiment. The encore’s roughly rolling “She Loves You” and “Here’s Looking At You, Kid”, a warm summer breeze of a song, are among the few moments of reflection (the band’s default position on record). The happy surge as fans and band meet masks these faults tonight.