How am I supposed to know that you're high if you won't even dance?
Far be it for me to criticize the Hold Steady. No band has brought me more joy in the past half-decade. I have spent hundreds, probably thousands, of hours rocking out to Hold Steady songs and marveling at the wisdom and wit of Craig Finn's lyrics. I have seen the band seven or eight times, in Chicago, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Columbia. What they do is meaningful to me on a deep and personal level.
Ah, but here on the Wayward I am cast in the role of music critic. I am asked to put aside my biases and report objectively. That is an impossible task, but let's try our best.
In my Critic's Choice previewing this show in the paper this week
, I said that the latest Hold Steady album, this year's Heaven Is Whenever
, is probably their worst album, but it doesn't matter, because it's still pretty good. Last night's show at the Blue Note was the worst Hold Steady show I have ever seen, but, you know, it was still pretty good.
The best Hold Steady shows -- the best rock shows in general -- are the ones where the band is a little reckless and unhinged. But as Finn says in "Slapped Actress": Some nights it's entertainment / And some other nights it's work. Last night might have been one of those work nights. Finn gave it his all -- he smiled and clapped and ran around the stage pointing at things with a crazy look in his eye -- but the rest of the band frowned throughout most of the set. A year ago, Finn would have had Franz Nicolay, the mustachioed keyboardist, to add some extra showmanship, but Nicolay's no longer in the band. The new keyboardist -- who is actually quite good -- is hidden near the back of the stage. (They've also added a touring guitarist, because though Finn usually has a guitar slung over his shoulder, he only kind of plays it.)
Perhaps the band's early song selection was an indication of their mood. They opened with "You Can Make Him Like You," from Boys and Girls in America. It's one of my favorite Hold Steady songs, but it's also uncharacteristically mean: You don't have to know the inspiring people / Let your boyfriend know the inspiring people / You can hang in the kitchen / You can talk about the stars of the upcoming sequel. (Mean, but also totally great.) "Rock Problems" -- She said I just can't sympathize / With your rock and roll problems -- followed.
One good thing about seeing the Hold Steady these days is that they've got a fairly deep catalog to draw from. They don't play the same setlist every night. The set wasn't heavy on any particular album -- not even Heaven, which was a little surprising -- but the song selection was solid. They know their strengths. "Massive Nights" will always get the crowd bouncing. "Dance with the One You Came With," a non-album track, appeases the hardcore fans. "The Sweet Part of the City" gives the evening a little extra soul. They closed with "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," which I guess is probably the closest thing they have to a hit. Tad and the new guitarist jammed it out Dead-style, noodling for a couple of minutes before launching back into the chorus. And either on "Hoodrat" or "How a Resurrection Really Feels" -- I can't remember -- Finn played a squeaky little guitar solo, which was kind of funny. The band seemed amused by it.
For a first-timer, the show might have been a religious experience like the ones I've had at other Hold Steady shows. But for a Hold Steady vet, it was a bit of a disappointment. I have been in love -- true love -- with only a handful of bands, and the Hold Steady is one of them. But being in love is complicated. There are expectations. There are massive highs and crushing lows
. This was just an off night, is all. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself for now.
Critical Bias: Um, the Hold Steady is prolly my favorite band.
Random Notebook Dump: "Lots of spitting." At different points, both Finn and Tad hawked loogies right onto the stage, though not in a disrespectful way.
You Can Make Him Like You
The Sweet Part of the City
Dance With The One You Came With
Multitude of Casualties
Hot Soft Light
Stuck Between Stations
Sequestered in Memphis
Ask Her For Some Adderall
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
How a Resurrection Really Feels