The Hold Steady @ In the Venue

Posted November 16, 2010 in

The real question was whether or not these guys could pull it off.  The Hold Steady had played Salt Lake City on their two previous tours, both times packing the Urban Lounge to near (or even past) capacity.  So much had changed since then.  The most recent album, Heaven is Whenever, hit stores earlier this year to less than stellar fanfare.  In the months prior it was announced that this record would continue in the small-scale arena rock-sounding vein that the band had essentially already mastered.  This opened up a rift between long time pianist Franz Nicolay and the rest of the band.  Nicolay, feeling like he was spinning his wheels, left to pursue other musical interests.  In his absence, the resulting Hold Steady record was light on keyboards and lacked some of the eccentricity that came with having a wax-mustachioed multi-instrumentalist sharing the stage with four regular guys.  The more mature sounding record compensated for the minimal piano tracks with extra thick guitar lines and storied lyrics that reflected the band’s current outlook on the world—a more grateful and melancholy outlook.  Critics balked, and fans wondered if this evolution would turn out to be a positive thing.  Still, the record was well received by diehard fans, and the more layered guitar sound left many wondering how the band was going to recreate it in a live setting.  If they were going to play the newer songs live, it was going to take a few more musicians to make it work.  This inevitability led to the addition of new keyboardist Dan Neustadt (former cohort of Nicolay in The World/Inferno Friendship Society) and second guitar player Steve Selvidge (formally of Lucero).  The stage was set.  The question was whether or not they could deliver.  Would they even try to recapture the old magic, or would this be a completely new direction for this Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minnesota group of musicians.

Any lingering concerns were quickly put to rest when guitarist Tad Kubler ripped into the first song.  And when I say first song, I really mean it.  The opener was “Positive Jam,” the opening track on the very first Hold Steady record.  Gone were any fears that the band would stick to only recent material—this was going to be a career-spanning performance.  The rambling, history-laded “Positive Jam” showcased singer Craig Finn as the wide-eyed, finger-pointing front man who is unwilling, or maybe even unable, to hold anything back.  Without a single word of stage banter, the now six-piece band bled seamlessly into a fierce rendition of “Stuck Between Stations.”  Five minutes in and already a song about Minneapolis.  Nice.  They followed with the first sing-along moment of the evening—the new track “Hurricane J.”  Members of the crowd who had not been won over by this point retreated to the bar in the back, but the rest of us soldiered on, shouting along with the whoah-oh-OHH-oh part like we were on the payroll.

The next several songs included both celebrated and lesser known Hold Steady anthems.  “Girls Like Status,” a song that has never been properly released on a state-side studio album made a surprise appearance, as did “Magazines”—my favorite cut from 2008’s Stay Positive. Soon after, the recent “The Sweet Part of the City” brought the crowd to cheers with the sincerity of its closing line “we like to play for you.”  With our shouts of approval it was as if we were collectively expressing to the band how grateful we were that they would spend a Thursday evening with us.

The best part of the evening was seeing how well the six-piece version of the band meshed together.  Bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake provided the solid framework over which Finn could spill his soul and the new dual lead guitarists could trade solos.  The double guitar work led to an extended version of the much celebrated “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.”  This was where the big 1970s rock band sound came on in full force.  Kubler and Selvidge faced off in a friendly way.  It was incredible to see how even the most intricate guitar work seemed to flow effortlessly from both men.  Any band would be lucky to even one of these guys in their ranks.  Having them both on stage together, it became clear what a rock and roll juggernaut this pair really could be.  It was the only thing that managed to pull some of the focus off of the now sweaty, manic Finn.  The band finished their set with “the Weekenders,” a sort of sequel to 2006’s ode to clairvoyant horse track betting “Chips Ahoy!” and “Slapped Actress,” a song that allowed the audience to engage in some more background vocal whoa-ohhs. 

With a slight pause, and without even leaving the stage, the band ripped into a three song, rapid-fire encore.  A raucous “Constructive Summer” transitioned readily into an energetic and crowd-vocal-heavy rendition of “Massive Nights.”  The final song of the evening pulled again from the first record.  “Most People are DJs” might have seemed like an odd choice for a final number, but the obscene guitar soloing that Kubler so meticulously plowed through on the recording became even more epic when multiplied by two.  When it seemed like the crowd couldn’t take it anymore, the band brought the song to a close and called it a night.  In all, those in attendance were treated to twenty three blistering Hold Steady songs, every one a story, and every story a chance to feel and rejoice.  This was storytelling the way it should be—with music, drinks and a couple of hundred good friends.

Here is the complete set list:

Positive Jam
Stuck Between Stations
Hurricane J
Girls Like Status
The Swish
You Can Make Him Like You
The Smidge
The Sweet Part of the City
Rock Problems
Banging Camp
Chips Ahoy!
Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
Stevie Nix
Sequestered in Memphis
We Can Get Together
Southtown Girls
Your Little Hoodrat Friend (extended double guitar noodling)
The Weekenders
Slapped Actress

Constructive Summer
Massive Nights
Most People are DJs (extra-long dual guitar solos)