If you happen to in Ventura, CA on any given Saturday night, you could drive past the Majestic Ventura Theater and not even realize that a rock concert was taking place. It blends into the downtown scene so seamlessly that you could be on your way to the Starbucks on the next block, or the movieplex around the corner and completely miss it.
Built in the 1920s, this once grand movie palace was retrofitted to accommodate rock concerts. The seats on the ground floor were removed to allow general admission viewing, while the balcony seats remain intact for the lucky few that claim one before the start of a show. When you enter the old building, it’s like stepping into another time. The walls are still adorned with the same Mission Style design, and the handcrafted chandelier still hangs from the venue’s 50 foot high ceiling. It’s a wonderful place to see a band perform, as I found out Saturday night, April 20th, when the Gaslight Anthem and 1200 of their dedicated fans came to the Ventura Theater for a night of righteous music from the Jersey band.
The night began at 8:15 by opening act Matt Mays, an artist out of Nova Scotia touring in support of his latest album, Coyote. The opening slot of any gig is a tough spot, especially for a relatively unknown singer from Canada. But Mays and his killer band immediately won over the crowd with their first song, “Indio.” I would describe their sound as California rock, laid back and country, influenced by the likes of Neil Young and Gram Parsons (neither of which were born and raised in CA). Confined to a small area in front of the Gaslight Anthem’s equipment (which was on stage under black cloth), Mays and his group created an energy that had people forgetting about their beers and pushing toward the front of the stage.
Fronting a five-man band, Mays played lead guitar and traded vocal harmonies with 2nd guitarist, Adam Baldwin. These two fed off of each other and this intensified the action on stage. Meanwhile, bassist Serge Samson and keyboardist Matt Scott provided a solid foundation to the songs. Finally, drummer Damien Moynihan worked his ass off playing some sick, heavy beats. Their short set included stand out tracks such as “Take It On Faith” (the current single), “Loveless,” “Stoned” and the brilliant “Dull Knife.” Their Americana sound stirred the soul.
You often hear of a band playing with a purpose. It was only after these guys left the stage that I Googled Mays and discovered that there was a sixth member to the band who had recently died. Jay Smith, a third guitarist, was found dead in a hotel room in late March. No doubt Mays and his band were playing with a purpose, paying tribute to their fallen friend and working through the emotions that come with the sudden death of a loved one.
When the lights came on, a guy in front of me remarked, “Who was that guy? He was fucking good.” That guy was Matt Mays, and he made a slew of new fans that night.
Mays did his job warming up the crowd, not that this audience needed any help getting pumped for the Gaslight Anthem. After a brief intermission, in which songs by the Clash, Replacements and Huey Lewis played over the PA, the lights dimmed once more and we were treated to the music of… Cyndi Lauper. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” may seem like an unusual way to make an entrance, but everyone seemed to like it, especially when the Gaslight Anthem strolled out on stage.
Drummer Benny Horowitz took the stool behind his four-piece drum set that featured the late James Gammon (a veteran character actor well known by Cleveland Indians fans) painted on the front of the bass drum. Alex Levine, the band’s slick haired, handsome bass player, stood poised to far stage right. Lead guitarist Alex Rosamilia, wearing a trucker cap askew to one side, took up residence in the stage left corner. Touring guitarist Ian Perkins smiled and readied himself, standing between Levine and Horowitz. And center stage, in jeans and a brown Stax Records T-shirt, his longish blond hair falling in his face, was lead singer/guitarist Brian Fallon. With appreciative smiles toward their fans, they let the anticipation build. Then, a giant banner with the band’s name on it opened up, draping the back wall on stage. The crowd roared and the Gaslight Anthem kicked things off with the song “Howl,” a brief, yet powerful song from their latest album, Handwritten.
From there, they ripped through a string of their most popular songs. Before Fallon even took a breath to speak to the crowd, they’d played “The ’59 Sound,” “Handwritten,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and “45.” I’ll say this: it takes some balls to play most of your singles before you’re halfway through the show. The focus of the night was clearly on their new album, as the Anthem performed ten of Handwritten’s songs, including “Blue Dahlia,” a bonus track found on the deluxe edition of the CD. The rest of the night, they drew primarily from their breakthrough, 2008’s The ’59 Sound, with deep cuts from other record thrown in for the hardcores, as well as a cover of Tom Petty’s “Refugee.”
Fallon only took a few instances to really speak directly to the audience (including some choice words about Mel Gibson). That doesn’t mean he wasn’t engaged with the fans. It’s difficult not to feel connected when everyone is pumping their fists, crowd surfing, and screaming the lyrics to each song back at you. This alone would have made Saturday’s concert feel special. However, the Gaslight Anthem are such a fine band that the concert was a joy to attend just to bare witness to an emerging band following in the footsteps of such brilliant live acts such as Petty, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen.
While Fallon is clearly the focal point of the band, the other band members provide so much to the music that this is definitely not a solo act, as some mainstream publications (*cough* rollingstone *cough*) try to imply. Levine sings the crucial harmonies that provide many of the chilling moments in the Anthem’s songs (plus he’s a damn fine bass player). Rosamilia, left in his own world to prowl that corner of the stage, creates the haunting guitar counter melodies that are signature to the band’s music. And Horowitz is a monster behind the kit. I don’t know who his influences are, but I hear Chris Mars and Dave Grohl in his playing. Horowitz sounds great on record, but his live playing is spectacular. Finally, Perkins gives the band some extra punch, and allows Fallon to go with the moment and take his hands off the guitar when the music moves him.
The Gaslight Anthem played for two hours, a relentless 23 song set that was perfectly balanced in its ebb and flow. By the time they began their final three songs, which included the heartbreaking “Mae” from Handwritten, and “Here’s Looking at You Kid” from The ’59 Sound, the audience was spent (or maybe it was just this old reviewer). Still, the band had one more anthem to play, perhaps their best song, “Backseat.” With its chiming guitars and lyrics about lost youth, this one had everyone in the place jumping in unison and screaming when the guys finally left the stage.
The band recently wrapped this short U.S. tour and are currently in Australia before heading over to Europe for most of the summer. They’ll be back in North America this fall. Intimate venues like the Ventura Theater are the ideal place to see a rising band like the Gaslight Anthem. You get to see the musicians up close, creating a bond that make you feel like you’re a part of something special. For years I’ve listened to the Gaslight Anthem and thought they were the real deal. After seeing them live I know this for fact.