Fallon has too much to say to be forced into an opener slot.
Revolution Hall, Portland, OR
When you look at the bill for the Brian Fallon and Craig Finn’s “Songs from the Hymnal” tour, something seems a little wrong. No disrespect to Fallon—frontman of Jersey’s leading group of Springsteen acolytes the Gaslight Anthem—but on paper it seems like he should be warming up the crowd for Finn, the brilliant storyteller at the center of the Hold Steady and Lifter Puller (as well as a fantastic solo artist). Finn’s stories of excess, addiction, sex mistake and the Twin Cities—not to mention his incredibly magnetic stage presence—make him seem like the obvious star of the show.
As expected, Finn was a humble and fantastic performer. The tour promised stories to accompany each artist’s songs, and Finn’s were charming and engaging. He doled out funny, understated anecdotes about everything from the song he wrote after the woman who’d become his wife dumped him (“Magazines”), to what separates punks from poseurs: whether or not they’ve seen Black Flag live (“Punk Is Not a Fair Fight”)—Finn was on vacation with his family when they came to Minneapolis, and the band broke up not long after, meaning he is not a punk—to 9/11, found throughout Faith in the Future. “Everything is darkly comedic when you’re hungover…everything is funny, but it hurts,” he explained after stating that hangovers were his favorite creative space, before introducing Faith in the Future’s 9/11-centric “Newmyer’s Roof.” (“This isn’t about an alcohol hangover, it was about a geopolitical event.”) Even in talking about the coping mechanisms employed to deal with a world-shaking event—in his case, drinking beer on his friend’s roof—he managed an air of charm and class.
As anyone who has seen a Hold Steady show knows, Finn is an infectiously energetic frontman. Taking him out of this mode and repurposing him in the form of a-guy-with-a-guitar is unexpectedly good, if a little jarring. “I don’t get out and do this much,” he confessed at the top of the show, perhaps his own way of apologizing for whatever nervousness he may still maintain. Stripped of the energy that permeates much of his music, his storytelling abilities are put on full display, which are better than just about anyone out there. The sad thing is, based on reports of banter from other cities on the tour, the stories he’s telling are somewhat rehearsed—something that likely helps him a heck of a lot, but takes some of the immediacy out of the evening.
Brian Fallon is aware of this. “I don’t plan the shit I say every night,” he confessed partway through his hour-plus set, before poking fun at people who do do the same shtick every night. Within the first five minutes of the show, he put to rest any confusion about why he’s the headliner: whereas Finn is warm and talented but slightly calculated, Fallon is a pure ball of energy, delivering five minutes of story for three minutes of song. He would wander down tangents (at one point, we were treated to a dissection of cool-rock-guy hair, namely that of Jon Bon Jovi, Robert Smith—“He took it too far!”—Paul Westerberg and the king of cool hair, Noel Gallagher), self-deprecate at an impressive rate and casually namedrop (“I’ve got Bruce Springsteen’s phone number—I’m good!”), and he did it all with an alarming amount of charisma. One moment found him unable to stop talking long enough to adjust his pedals on the floor, so he simply continued telling his story off-mic, crouched down and yelling to the crowd, without missing a beat. Later, he paused the show to talk to an eight-year-old dressed like Spider-Man near the front of the room, and to instruct a roadie to bring the boy snacks.
The songs sounded wonderful, too. We were, of course, treated to a bevy of fantastic Gaslight Anthem songs like “Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”, “Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts” and “She Loves You,” as well as a handful of songs from side project Molly and the Zombies. These songs, too, thrive in their stripped-back forms, Fallon’s voice and stage presence running the show effortlessly. And, if you felt like calling a tour “Songs from the Hymnal” was a touch self-aggrandizing, it turns out that the songs in question were covers of obvious influences like Dylan (“Don’t Think Twice”), Springsteen (“Highway 29”) and the Replacements—which wouldn’t be complete without Minneapolis ambassador Finn returning to the stage to assist in the classic “Left of the Dial.”
Not everyone can pull off a show like this one. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, “No good stage banter is too long, and no bad stage banter is short enough.” In showing that the line between “stage banter” and “autobiographical stand-up routine with songs” is very blurry, Fallon presented a hilarious, honest and ultimately rewarding performance that wholly justified the fact that Finn is relegated to “special guest” status. Fallon has too much to say to be forced into an opener slot.