all words: Phil Runco
all photos: Lauren Bulbin
Seven years have passed since the Hold Steady’s gut punch of a debut, Almost Killed Me. That’s seven years of incessant touring. Seven years of sprawling, boozy shows. Seven years of hangovers and open roads. You have to think it would take a toll on the band; that it would slowly grind out its initial enthusiasm.
But watching Craig Finn at 9:30 Club on Thursday, he still makes it feel like its the first time. A mischievous grin stretches across his soft face. His hands gesture recklessly, like those of an overexcited friend who can’t get through a story fast enough. His arms flail at his sides; a penguin trying in vein to take flight.
I don’t know how Finn does it night after night, especially on one, like this, of zero significance.
The Hold Steady has nothing to promote; in fact, the only thing on its horizon is the ominous solo LP from Finn. And it’s hard to consider this a victory lap tour when it comes on the heels of the band’s only truly underwhelming effort to date, Heaven is Whenever. No, all in all, this was about as Just Another Hold Steady Show as they come.
Yet when Finn walks out and tells the crowd, “We’re the Hold Steady, and we’re going to have a really good time tonight,” it doesn’t matter if that’s something he’s said dozens and dozens times: the man means it. His energy is infectious; it’s easy to get caught up in, and it remains the Hold Steady’s defining characteristic.
The band’s music is – and has never been – nearly as memorable. It’s classic rock comfort food. Comfort food lovingly and expertly prepared, no doubt, but rarely deviating from a trusted recipe of massive riffs, rapid drum fills, and – particularly on its singles – fist-pumping choruses.
Whether you call it consistency or sameness, the cohesiveness works in the Hold Steady’s favor over the course of 24 songs, allowing the band to seamlessly stitch together a pretty killer greatest hits set.
It plowed through each of its five albums on Thursday, drawing near equally from each. Earlier, hardnosed tracks (“The Swish”, “Hornets! Hornets!”) comfortably rubbed up against go-for-broke anthems (“Sequestered in Memphis”, “Massive Nights”) and more patiently unfolding songs (“Slapped Actress”, “The Sweet Part of the City”). It was all killer, no filler, and while I could bitch that some of the best Separation Sunday material didn’t make the cut (“Stevie Nix”, “How a Resurrection Really Feels”), I’d really be only playing favorites.
The band was all business. It hardly paused between numbers. Finn mused about the continued resonance of “Chips Ahoy” (“We’ve been doing that song for quite some time, and I think its a valid question: how am I supposed to know?”) and thanked the crowd for not staying home to “blog, Facebook, Twitter, whatever,” but, on the whole, he wasn’t as chatty as he’s been known to be. He and his band was content to plug away; no tunings or instrument changes necessary.
One notable absence was the lack of any keyboard, the instrument that has been a huge component of the band’s sound since their 2006 crossover Boys and Girls in America. (It was there on earlier records, but I’m talking high-in-the-mix, full E Street Band mode barroom piano.) Mustachioed keys man – and founding member – Franz Nicolay’s been out of the Hold Steady for almost two years now, and it appears his temporary touring replacement Dan Neustadt has similarly parted ways with the Finn and company.
Some may have been disappointed by the loss of the piano’s melodic zip, but I didn’t find it all that sorely missed. Opener “Stuck Between Stations” was every bit as propulsive, and “Southtown Girls” was just as big a sing-along. If anything, the extra guitar gave the songs greater urgency. Maybe I’m biased: I’ve always felt Nicolay’s key work could unnecessarily push songs to cheesy places , and his attempts on Stay Positive to spruce up the Hold Steady formula with synths and new wave keyboard were ill-advised.
Of course most of the 9:30 Club crowd could probably have given a shit about the absence of ivory-twinkling, let alone the legacy of Nicolay. This was a night for double-fisting and reciting arcane lyrics in unison, not overthinking.
Yeah, it was Just Another Hold Steady Show, but after seven years, there’s still nothing wrong with that.
Openers the Donkeys warmed up for the Minneapolis band, literally at one point inciting the audience, “When I say ‘Hold,” you say ‘Steady!’” Such pep rallying probably wasn’t necessary, but the Donkeys are a band very eager to please. “C’mon, DC!” singing drummer Sam Sprague shouted at one point. “This is best show we’ve ever had in DC!” he later added. He was out-hammed every step of the way by the keyboardist, who tried to spark a clap-along at every possible moment.
Such shameless pandering obviously doesn’t sit well with me, but the Donkeys music is completely agreeable stuff. They’re a technically proficient band, and the Laurel Canyon influences they’re channeling – Gram Parson, the Byrds, the Dead – go down easy. Lyrically, it’s no schmaltzier than Local Natives or Mumford and Sons.
So while I can’t really hate on the band’s music, I will say this: when I come to a bar to drink Jack Daniels, don’t expect me to get excited when I’m forced to drink sweet tea vodka first.