Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Hold Steady at Detroit Bar, 8/25/10

Sometimes things just come together, no matter how bad they start out.  I was supposed to see The Hold Steady at the El Rey in May, but that week brought an extra special surprise in the tiny, spiky and painful form of my first (and for the love of all that is good and decent and right in the world, hopefully last) kidney stone.  When I saw this show announced I knew the universe was trying to even the score.  The world's best bar band in a tiny bar twenty minutes from where I live?  Yes, please.

This being one of my favorite bands aside, I was particularly intrigued about the live show post-Franz Nicolay, the keyboardist/backup vocalist extraordinaire who left before the most recent album, Heaven is Whenever.  The recorded material noticeably suffered for his absence; would their performance?  Um, no.  It was strange not seeing him up there but the band sounded as great as ever, overcoming Detroit's less than optimal sound to lead the crowd through an expertly paced tour of their entire catalogue. 

When guitarist Tad Kubler began softly strumming and lead singer/madman Craig Finn started talking about waking up in the 20's, an excited chorus of "Tell us how to start it!" rang out next to me (or maybe it was just the one drunk guy, but he was really loud).  "You gotta start it with a positive jam!" Finn shouted shortly thereafter, starting at the beginning of it all, then jumping right into the classic riff of "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night."  By the time the pounding drums signalling "The Swish" started two songs later, we were worked up into a ridiculous frenzy, shouting right back at Finn as he name-checked members of The Band and Journey, living the nostalgia trip that these guys somehow never make tired.

I do not call Finn a madman lightly: he's a nonstop freak onstage, wildly gesturing, smiling, shouting asides that even he probably can't hear.  During "Southtown Girls" he says "I'm a little bit surprised you didn't tell me there'd be three of you," a statement he punctuated this night with a classic 'what the fuck?' look.  Because of his breathless delivery sometimes he falls behind the songs, but the band just plays an extra measure while he catches up.  With 23 songs in an hour and a half, nary a break between them, his boundless energy was really impressive.  And Kubler is completely underrated.  The piano, the hooks and Finn's lyrics get a lot of attention, but Kubler's guitar is the key to everything.  The Hold Steady is a guitar band--everything else is built around it.  On surprise set-closer "Sweet Payne" he started the charge to the end with a tip-toeing riff before peeling off one last epic solo in a night full of them.  I would have shouted for more, but I'd already sung myself hoarse.

Set List: Positive Jam / Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night / Hurricane J / The Swish / Rock Problems / Magazines / Constructive Summer / You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to the Dance With) / Chips Ahoy! / Stuck Between Stations / Stevie Nix / Goin' on a Hike / Girls Like Status / Hot Soft Light / Barely Breathing / Your Little Hoodrat Friend / The Weekenders / Southtown Girls / Massive Nights / A Slight Discomfort

Encore: We Can Get Together / You Can Make Him Like You / Sweet Payne

Photo by Spencer Kornhaber, OC Weekly

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