When Stage Banter Goes Wrong
Last weekend the Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon lashed out at his audience; an audience that had already been lashed by winds and rain during what was pretty terrific set in a spectacular new waterfront venue in lower Manhattan.
Playing against the backdrop of the Hudson River, and beyond that Jersey City, Fallon, who liberally quotes Bruce Springsteen in lyrics, who has played with Springsteen, who has been called everything from anointed by Springsteen, to raised on Springsteen, to the true heir to Springsteen, took umbrage at a single syllable called out by a few audience members. That syllable was "Bruuuuuuce."
Later Fallon posted on his Tumblr page an account of his emotional state under the headline "Tonight You Have Broken My Heart." In that post he wrote:
"I feel it necessary to address that we are The Gaslight Anthem. We play Gaslight Anthem songs. We're not the band you think we may be akin to. My name isn't Bruce. It's not Eddie, or Joe, or Paul either. If you'd like to hear their songs they are readily available and the former two tour quite often. You should go see them, they put on great shows. It's truly amazing to watch them at their craft. But again, we're not them."
Which seems true, if obvious. The reaction on the Tumblr page and on a few web sites devoted to the band was rousing approval. Fans rallied around their group, backed Fallon's assertion of originality and, while pausing to honor the talents and undeniable influence of Springsteen, made the case that Fallon should be allowed the space he deserves to make unique art.
And of course he should. But that is largely unrelated to what actually went on during the show. As a member the audience during the "Incident 83 blocks south of 57th Street" what I saw was an overly-sensitive front man haplessly painting himself into a corner and then becoming flustered due to what was mostly a misunderstanding. Luckily we have video:
In it, you see that Fallon's stage banter is not nearly as tight as his songs. After a bit of the "Banana Boat Song" (:08), Fallon dives into "Ice Ice Baby" (:26). The experiment is a semi-success, setting aside the cloyingly patronizing statement that he respects Vanilla Ice because the former rapper is now employed in the "honest work" of roofing. Then Fallon says, for the first time, "Anyway my point was ..." (1:14). Next he tries a Lady Gaga sing-along that doesn't really work (1:24). He insults the crowd. He asks "Want to do something different?" (1:37). At this invitation a few people yell "Bruuuuuuce." Fallon admonishes them (1:47). After a little pandering ("New York City!" 2:40) and another "Anyway my point is ..." (2:52) Fallon asks the crowd if they want to sing Bon Jovi's "'Living on a Prayer' ... orrrrrr?" (3:04). Or what? Or "Bruuuuuce," many in the crowd respond.
Maybe some wanted to hear Bruce. Maybe some (me) thought that was exactly where Fallon was going. Maybe some remembered the time they yelled "Bruce" at a Gaslight Anthem show and Bruce actually appeared. But the final chant was a boss to far. Fallon lost it. While he didn't storm off the stage ("Pull an Axl Rose" 3:20), he stopped talking to the audience, stuck to the music, went home and used Tumblr to give full flower to his hurt.
Toward the end of his Tumblr diatribe (after a spurious example equating the expectations of the audience at a rock show to a cinema audience) Fallon writes, "For some reason I'm the one with microphone." He would do well to remember this. As the one in charge he needs to lead, and not be surprised when an audience, confused about the direction being taken, veers off on its own. I can think of another performer who interacts with the audience masterfully — in fact it's a highlight of one of his shows — but I of course dare not speak his name.
Most dedicated fans of a band will excuse sub par banter, maybe even using the chance to grab a beer. But it really is a missed opportunity, and a performer should either know that it's not his forte (Bob Dylan) or be as assiduous and professional in the preparation — or at least the conception — of remarks, as he is in chord progressions and lyrics. Bad banter is like a bad wedding toast: it won't engender booing or doom the marriage, but it may be remembered as the low point of an otherwise lovely affair.