The Vansaders had an advantage over other bands that I’ve fallen in love with while seeing them perform for the first time. They played a cover of one of my all-time favorite songs in their set while playing as the opener at my all-time favorite concert.
In 2017, Jesse Malin headlined a concert called ‘Strummer Jam’ at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Joe Strummer and the Clash are up there in my personal pantheon with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, as is Jesse Malin. Needless to say I was pretty excited for this concert. I’d never been to the Stone Pony before, and given its legendary status, that was part of the attraction. If you had designed a show specifically with me in mind, you couldn’t get much more on the nose.
The format of the show was two opening acts, a set from Jesse Malin, and then a huge set of Clash and Joe Strummer covers done by an array of different artists with Malin and his troupe acting as house band. The lineup was incredibly stacked, including Brian Fallon, Craig Finn, Patrick Stickles, Mike Montali & Jonathan Bonilla, Ted Leo, and more.
I knew most of the names going into it, but I had not heard of the two opening acts, Matty Carlock and The Vansaders. Sometimes I’ll listen to the openers for a show beforehand if I don’t know them, although usually I like to go in cold and be surprised. In this case I went in cold.
Matty Carlock was really good. He’s a former punk rocker making a Jesse Malinesque switch to something a little different. His performance was pretty raw and honest, and felt like he was working through the transition and not remotely comfortable in his own musical skin yet. The songs were all great, but it felt almost like watching a deer trying to find footing on ice. There was a real edge and honesty to it that feels like lightning in a bottle when you see it. Carlock later came back out and performed ‘White Riot’, and you could see he was considerably more comfortable with the visceral punk rock than the inward looking singer-songwriter set he’d performed. It was enthralling in the kind of way you want an opening act to be.
After Carlock came the Vansaders. They’re the traditional kind of four-piece band that rock music was built for. They launched into a set that existed in that realm somewhere between punk rock and folk music. Their music had a muscular confidence but also that same underlying sadness and desperation that informs so much of the rock music from dying cities and towns in America. They played with the kind of energy that only real believers can muster in front of a crowd of people still finishing their first beers of the night and not quite ready to get into it. I was impressed. They were exciting.
Then they took a step back and frontman Doug Zambon played a cover of Joe Strummer’s ‘Burning Lights’. It’s a song Strummer did for the movie ‘So I Hired a Contract Killer’ along with ‘Afro-Cuban Be-Bop’. It’s pretty obscure, even in the realm of Joe Strummer aficionados, although a studio version was just released in the new Strummer collection that just came out.
I was enthralled to see this song I’d loved for years performed live. Even with my pretty high expectations going into this show I hadn’t expected to hear someone play it. Zambon played it great, and I encourage you to go give it a listen. I don’t want to say that it’s what got me interested in them, the rest of the set did that, but it didn’t hurt.
As an aside, when I went to YouTube to find that link I saw that they’ve played it at least once since. That makes me wicked happy, because it’s a song that deserves to live and be heard and I’m glad someone is still preaching that gospel.
After the show I went over to their table and got a copy of their EP ‘No Matter What’. It had just come out a few days before and a couple of the songs they played that night were from it – ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Roll the Dice’.
I listened to the EP a lot on the long drive home after the concert and picked up the rest of their catalogue the next day. I’ve written a lot about falling instantly in love with bands and this was one of those cases. There was something about burning on down the New Jersey Turnpike at one in the morning blasting ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Hurtlin’ on loop that felt perfect at the time, and makes me smile remembering it. Sometimes rock and roll is just right.
This week the Vansaders released a new album. It’s a full acoustic record featuring two cover songs and seven reworked versions of their own songs. It’s a different sound but still taps into that same vein of melancholy, anger, sadness, and hope that lives in all great rock and roll albums. Even the album cover, a soft focus photo of a theme park in the distance, hits the right note.
The album opens with ‘No Plans’. It really sets the tone well and has a catchy bounciness that makes you tap your foot and bob your head while listening. The lyrics about drifting around and feeling good about it sound like a summer afternoon, even before the finger picked solo. It’s light and fun and just about the perfect way to open an album.
‘Monster’ is the second track and one of the two covers. It slows things down a little and injects some Irish into the proceedings, complete with sad lyrics. It’s the kind of song that would feel at home being sung at a wake. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s hard to pull off that trick and they do it with gusto here.
The opening to ‘Christine’ is reminiscent of Harry Chapin. The rest of the song feels like a dance between Chapin and Springsteen, with a more modern choreography. The middle eight is lovely to boot. It wouldn’t surprise me if a few people were to dance to this at their wedding – it’s the kind of song that sticks in your heart.
‘Everything We’re Not’ has a shanty punk anger and energy to it. “We storm through this weather, and now we’re free to do anything we want” is an ethos that shows up in a lot of the band’s music and it’s very, very present in this tune. The guitar has a flamenco vibe and it works with the fiery spirit of the song. I’m not sure I have a favorite on the album yet, but this is probably the early contender.
The shanty punk sound from ‘Everything We’re Not’ spills over into ‘Ripped It Apart’ but instead of flamenco guitar it’s harmonica. It’s the shortest song on the album, but a barn burner in it’s own right. The backing vocals are a lot of fun and it’s the kind song you’d finish a set with. I could almost hear ‘Thank you, good night!’ after the song finished. I feel like clapping every time I listen to it.
‘Kiss the Bottle’ is the second cover track. The halting guitar, accordion, and fiddle give it a remarkably Celtic vibe to go along with the down and out lyrics. It’s a sad song, but also very human. I understand why the band would put it into the mix with the rest of their tracks here. It reminded me of the Lucero version, but softer, and with fewer rough edges.
The tinkling piano in ‘So Long Ago’ sounds like the sound a bottle makes when it taps a glass in a quiet bar in the middle of the day. The song evokes that mix of bourbon, nostalgia, regret, and wish for days gone by and wasted days to come. It’s quiet in the same way that light filtered through dirty windows is.
The only song I didn’t love on the album is the version of ‘Sunrise’ that comes next. I think it’s because the original version of the song has been such a big part of my personal soundtrack the last year and a half, but the anger and defiance that permeates the original is completely muted here. It becomes a kind of dirge with a funereal sound. It’s all very well done, and beautiful with a country-esque vibe. I can only come at it from the place of having heard the original a thousand times, so it’s hard to square myself with this one, but if you’re first hearing it this way, it might just be the best song on the album.
The album closer is ‘Handshakes and Pity’, and what a closing number it is. “I’ve gotta get out of this place before I get much older” is the key lyric and the sentiment of the whole song in a single verse. It’s a lot slower and more detailed than the original punked-out version. It has a ‘last day of summer’ melancholy and an understanding that moving on is hard but sometimes it’s just time to go.
The Vansaders are a Jersey band through and through. Their music is built on a foundation of living in places that only exist for most people a few months during the summer and then disappear with the longer shadows of autumn as it drifts towards October. Springsteen and The Gaslight Anthem are the easy comparisons and they’re all part of the same ocean’s wind blown and sand-swept parade, but there’s more here. Easy comparisons are never the right ones, and when you listen to this record with its melancholy lows and defiant half-smile highs, you can hear the echoes of older towns in England and Ireland where bank holidays happen and the music was communal. You can hear a thousand articles about how rock and roll is dead being crumpled up and tossed into a trashcan, as someone in a leather jacket walks away muttering ‘not quite yet’. It’s not a perfect album – few are – but it’s a great album, and something that will live in your head for a while. When you take it out and put it on again in a few years, you’ll remember how those jeans fit, how good those shoes looked, and how the air smelled on THAT day, and for a little while the weight of the world won’t feel quite so heavy.