Concert Review: The Hold Steady at The Crofoot Ballroom, Pontiac, MI, 4/23/14

 

“So that’s what’s been missing from my life the last four years.”

-Me, half-drunkenly, last night

Man, I can’t believe it’s been four years since I’ve seen the Hold Steady! What have I been doing with my life? Well, it’s not all my fault – owing partially to guitarist Tad Kubler’s (now rectified) drug problem, and perhaps partially to plain ol’ laziness, the Hold Steady haven’t released an album in four years either, and have maintained only a sporadic touring schedule that simply hasn’t brought them close enough to wherever I’ve happened to be since I last saw them in July 2010. Fortunately, they’re finally back with a great new album, Teeth Dreams (which I’ll review soon), and a proper world tour that arrived yesterday in Pontiac, Michigan. Which, for the record, still isn’t particularly close to me. Thanks to I-96 currently being closed, I had to spend an hour and fifteen minutes driving on like eight different highways and, eventually, through the appallingly affluenza-infested cul-de-sac Orchard Park. I passed one estate that looked like it belonged to Columbian drug lord. Ugh, rich people with their fucking money and shit. But I digress.

As for my little adage up there, well, I’m not sure it’s totally accurate. Yes, I really missed seeing the Hold Steady for so long, and yes, last night’s show activated pleasure centers within my soul that seemed like they had been laying dormant for quite a while as I’ve been caught up in the rat race of life (which at the moment for me mostly consists of watching old episodes of The West Wing on Netflix and constantly loading and unloading the dishwasher. It’s a hard knock life). And yet, the whole evening felt strangely familiar. You see, I spent the majority of those four years since I last saw THS at college, where I became intimately familiar with the concept of house parties featuring really loud, inebriated bands and an even more inebriated audience. And you know what, the show brought back some (admittedly fuzzy) memories.

Maybe that’s only because the guitarist of the opening band, Deer Tick, looked like the lost love child of Bob Dylan and this guy I went to college with named Liam.

OK, most of you probably don’t know what Liam Dailey looks like, but I promise you, the resemblance is uncanny.

Deer Tick were really good, incidentally. I was really into their debut album, War Elephant, when it came out back in 2007, but then they put out their second album, which I listened to once and set aside, and I just completely lost track of everything they’ve done since. After last night, I feel like an idiot for doing that, cause they’re pretty much right up my alley. Frontman John McCauley is exactly the kind of gruff-voiced, hard-drinking, yet tender-hearted songwriter I often get into, and they had a pleasingly diverse repertoire. I remember War Elephant being primary composed of folksy finger picking stuff, but while they did some of that, they also did some soul, some balladry, and some rowdy rock ‘n roll with A REALLY LOUD BASS DRUM, including the incendiary rave-ups “Shitty Music Festival” and “Let’s All Go To The Bar,” which deserves to be America’s official drinking song.

 

As you may surmise from all the photos, I have an iPhone now, so I can document all the good times in my life. Like Hold Steady shows, which are, in my experience, aggressively good times. From the intro music (Lou Reed’s “Real Good Time Together”) through to the last chord, each performance is treated as a party; a celebration of rock music and of the many wondrous things that can happen when a bunch of people get together in a room, drink beer, and shout and sing at the top of their lungs. Craig Finn doesn’t just sing about “killer parties,” he does his best to make every person in the audience—even those not wearing plaid button-down shirts, which is apparently the widely agreed upon standard attire for attending a Hold Steady show—feel like they’re actually at one. Yeah, yeah Craig makes the same announcement at every show (“There’s just so much joy in what we do up here!”), so maybe it’s old hat, but I’ll be damned if that joy isn’t irresistibly infectious. Now, if you’ve never witnessed Craig Finn’s performance style before, allow me to describe it for you. Have you ever seen a schizophrenic hobo on the street manically hopping around, swatting giant imaginary insects away from his face, and yelling out random phrases to no one in particular? OK, now give him a dose of uppers and plop him on stage with a rock band, except make him the happiest person in the universe. That’s Craig Finn. And lemme tell you, although it may seem preposterous, he commands the stage with more enthusiasm and skill than just about any frontman I’ve ever seen, including Mick Jagger. Even if you hate the Hold Steady’s songs, or shit, even if you hate Craig’s often atonal, stuffed-nose voice, well, even the most cynical old fuck in the world would likely have to actively resist getting swept up in what Craig does up on stage. He just seems like he genuinely wouldn’t want to be doing anything else in the world than playing a show.

Anyway, while the yelling and drinking and revelry and general atmosphere were definitely part of why I felt like I was back in college during the show, the band’s new streamlined musical approach contributed to the feeling as well. Keyboardist/1890s fashion icon Franz Nicolay is all but a distant memory for THS now, but I haven’t seen them live since they ditched the keyboards altogether and transitioned to a leaner, meaner two-lead-guitar lineup with the addition of Steve Selvidge. Steve wasn’t even at the show, having rushed home to attend to his wife, who just had a baby a few weeks ahead of schedule (Craig reported that everyone was healthy and doing fine). Thus, THS took the stage as a four piece, something they haven’t been since way back in 2004 when they put out Almost Killed Me.

It was this stripped down lineup that really put me back into house party mode. For all Kubler’s meaty classic rock riffs and the band’s increasingly dense arrangements, THS have always been kind of a punk band at heart, much better suited to dingy dive bars than arenas. The Crofoot Ballroom is hardly dingy, unlike seemingly everything in downtown Pontiac, which was so deserted I began to wonder if all the residents were underground preparing for nuclear fallout, but the band made it feel like a much smaller room, attacking the material with a blunt force that I honestly thought suited the songs better than Franz’s arch Springsteenian piano parts ever did. I mean, it’s pretty hard to hear the studio version of “Stuck Between Stations” and imagine the song without that piano part on the bridge, but after hearing the grittier guitar-only version, well, suddenly it isn’t so hard to imagine at all. Did some songs translate better than others? I guess; I did miss the dual guitar tangle on some of the newer material “Rock Problems” and “The Only Thing,” while older songs like “The Swish” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” left no such aural holes to fill since they’ve always sounded raw and stripped down.  But for the most part, they just powered through their set in such a manner that endowed the songs with a no-frills flavor that one might expect from a much younger band, and which certainly made me forget about any absent personnel. Besides, even though he’s starting to look paler then a walking corpse—a few years of booze and drug abuse will do that to ya—Kubler plays loud and proud enough all by his lonesome. I also like that Craig had to play more guitar than he usually does; it added to the pseudo punk aesthetic, and he even got a pretty nice guitar weave going with Tad at the end of “Hornets! Hornets!” They high fived about it after. It was awesome.

The encore was pretty much perfect, especially since it started out with the indie classic “Citrus,” which I’d never seen them play before. Then John McCauley and That Guy Who Looks Like Liam Dailey returned to the stage for a rendition of Deer Tick’s own “Easy,” a furious, nut-busting run through of Stay Positive’s “Constructive Summer,” and finally “Killer Parties,” which is probably how every Hold Steady show should end. It left me wondering – are the Hold Steady really that rejuvenated by their new lineup and album? Or has it just been so long since I’ve seen them that I had forgotten that they’re always like that? Does it matter? No. Go see the Hold Steady.

Setlist:

Hornets! Hornets! / Sequestered In Memphis / The Swish / Rock Problems / Magazines / I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You / Spinners / The Ambassador / You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came To The Dance With) / You Can Make Him Like You / The Sweet Part Of The City / The Only Thing / The Weekenders / Chips Ahoy! / Stuck Between Stations / Big Cig / Your Little Hoodrat Friend / South Town Girls / Stay Positive / Encore: Citrus / Easy / Constructive Summer / Killer Parties



2 Comments

  1. victoid wrote:

    Wow! Wish I coulda been there…the last show I saw was the Stones triumphant return to their roots, but that doesn’t really count. Arenas are for spectators- too distant to be part of the action. Can you imagine fans streaming onto the court and fist-pump dancing during a Knicks game?
    I only remember Steady when they actually were a punkish band, would like to catch up, but like you I’m too busy watchin Netflix (House of Cards is my poison of choice)- and walkin the dog (don’t have a dishwasher) to go out.
    One beef: Don’t ever conflate anything about The Boss’ music with wussiness- even the piano parts. For example, the lilting piano intro to Born to Run only serves as a launch pad for the sledge hammer that follows. It’s like the mellow music in a rising elevator, and when the door opens you are blasted with Nine Inch Nails and The Chili Peppers on stage together at full volume. Kinda makes your mention of “blunt force” seem like a toddler’s plastic hammer.

  2. victoid wrote:

    Whoopsie…That Springstein reference shoulda been Thunder Road, not Born To Run.
    The brilliant metaphor doesn’t work with BTR


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