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All words: Jeb Gavin — All photos: Jeremy Kim

Initially, I was only going to write about The Hold Steady playing at U Street Music Hall on Wednesday night. I wanted to clinically analyze all the negative assessments and opinions I’ve heard regarding the band in real time, and see if I couldn’t respond to them one by one. I was going to be an impartial arbiter- well fuck that noise. I saw The Hold Steady play two shows at U Hall and kill it both nights. I cannot begin to divorce myself from the fact that THS is one of (if not my absolute) favorite bands. Their live shows are consistently more entertaining than any other band I’ve seen regularly (excepting the Drive-By Truckers, with whom THS played a double bill back in 2008.) I am member #61 of the Unified Scene, and proud of it.

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A major factor at work here is that somehow, unabashed rock and roll has become a caricature of itself over the past 20 years. After the collapse of hair metal under the weight of grunge and the rise of mainstream alternative rock, there’s been this regression towards the mean, where every subsequent “rock” band plays more and more generic “rock” music, effectively neutering the genre by homogenizing it. There was a time when rock was an escape for the weirdos, for the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads- it was essential counterculture music because you weren’t supposed to rock out. Every time rock music as a whole was in danger of becoming a joke, a small, determined group would come up with some sub-genre which revitalized the sound, stripping it bare or exposing it’s more flamboyant trappings. It’s how we end up with things like Americana, or roots rock, or hardcore and punk rock. Few bands these days take their cues from the essential aspects of this long, surreptitious history of music like The Hold Steady, and no one does it with their wit, their verve, and their energy.

Seeing them live is actually a confusing experience at first blush. That is to say, they look as though your favorite middle school teachers decided to throw down and form the world’s best bar band. Lead singer Craig Finn bounces around the stage with the excitement of a guy who loves every moment he spends on stage, cognizant it could all come grinding to a halt at any time and he’d be stuck back in a cubicle analyzing spreadsheets and filing TPS reports. Guitarist Tad Kubler has managed to perfect the appearance of a bored guitar god, even though he holds a guitar like you’d have to kill him twice to pry it from his hands. Both Bobby on drums and Galen on bass look as though they’ve been doing this for years and nothing would surprise them, but still enjoy every damn minute. (Galen is also one of the nicest guys in the world, hanging out on Solly’s patio after the show Thursday night.) It’s been two years since original keyboardist Franz Nickolay left the band to do his own thing (go check out Major General, it’s worth it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.) It’s been a year since they’ve toured without a keyboardist of any kind. With Tad and Craig, the addition of guitarist Steve Selvidge makes for a three guitar attack (like DBT, or Steve’s old band Lucero.) Selvidge looks like the lovechild of Wayne Coyne and Bob Ross (right down to the ‘fro,) but he plays like Ronnie Wood to Kubler’s Richards.

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Musically, there’s this hodgepodge of rock that initially turns people off. They complain about Craig talk-singing like Tom Waits, as though people are confused by the idea of autotune as essential. You also hear charges of sounding too much like Bruce Springsteen, because apparently some people exist who don’t like Springsteen. The Hold Steady manage to find a sweet spot between Midwestern hardcore, arena rock, and the kind of Americana roots rock popularized by the Band and expanded upon by the E Street Band. THS sounds better in smaller, crowded rooms; it can be daunting if you’ve never been to a punk show.

Wednesday night’s show was a little rowdier than Thursday’s show. The crowd was a little younger, and took the opportunity to bounce around more aggressively than the following night. I always like it when I see new folks at the show, but these kids, man, it’s like they’ve never been in a pit before. Also, Craig’s mic was buried on that first night. Thursday’s show was no less intense, but everything sounded cleaner, and the slightly older crowd wasn’t as aggressive. The Music Hall brought a few of the guys from the 9:30 Club to stand watch at the front of the stage Thursday night, perhaps as a response to the belligerent audience from the night before. Both nights featured some obscene guitar work, including Finn soloing during “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”, though Wednesday both Tad and Steve played harmonics along with Craig, whereas Thursday night they took turns playing counterpoint and running over and through the singer’s fret work.

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Regardless of differences, both nights felt like time spent in a church revival tent, at least to me. There’s something about seeing your favorite band, up close and personal, in a tiny little space- shouting along to every word, pogoing, quite literally rocking out; it is as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had. Even without the strong themes of redemption and stories of youthful hijinks which devolve into serious problems, there is a sense that then The Hold Steady plays, well, they said it best:

We mix our own mythologies. We push them out through PA systems,
We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen.
I’m not saying we could save you,
But we could put you in a place where you could save yourself.
If you don’t get born again… at least you’ll get high as hell.

Wednesday:
Records And Tapes (NEW)
Stuck Between Stations
Cattle And The Creeping Things
Sequestered In Memphis
The Swish
Rock Problems
Magazines
Sweet Part Of The City
Teeth Dreams (NEW)
You Can Make Him Like You
Wait A While (NEW)
Constructive Summer
Hot Soft Light
Chips Ahoy!
Hurricane J
Southtown Girls
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Ascension Blues
Massive Nights
Slapped Actress
Encore:
Multitude of Casualties
Stay Positive
How A Resurrection Really Feels

Thursday:

Hornets! Hornets!
Girls Like Status
Hurricane J
Banging Camp
Wait A While (NEW)
Constructive Summer
Hot Soft Light
Records and Tapes (NEW)
Sequestered in Memphis
The Swish
Rock Problems
Magazines
We Can Get Together
Most People Are DJs
Chips Ahoy!
Stuck Between Stations
Look Alive (NEW)
Ask Her for Adderall
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Southtown Girls
Encore:
Massive Nights
Stay Positive
Second Encore:
How A Resurrection Really Feels

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  • Natural Child:

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