This past weekend was homecoming weekend for The Hold Steady, who played two shows at their favorite venue, First Avenue. Although officially based in Brooklyn for the past several years, lead singer/songwriter Craig Finn grew up in Minneapolis, as did drummer Bobby Drake. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler is from Janesville, WI (perhaps the second most famous Janesville native, after erstwhile Republican VP nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan) and spent several years in the Twin Cities, most notably with Finn in The Hold Steady’s predecessor, Liftr Pullr. Rounding out the ensemble are bassist Galen Pavelka and guitarist Steve Selvidge – the newest member of the band, having replaced keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who departed in 2010 to pursue a solo career. Selvidge had previously been a member of Lucero, and the hard rock chops he honed in that bend mesh well with Kubler’s own formidable guitar prowess.
Craig Finn is an enigmatic figure; a curious combination of the sacred and the profane. With his nerdy glasses and Cost Cutters haircut, he resembles a grown up altar boy, yet he rants, raves, gyrates and gestures onstage like a holy roller possessed by the spirit. His songs chronicle the hard-partying, substance-abusing lifestyle of the young urban adult, while also interspersing images and references to his Catholic upbringing. Jesus is never too far away from the Party Pit.
The duality of The Hold Steady experience was on full display from the moment Finn and the band took the stage on Saturday night. Spreading his arms like Jesus on the cross, Finn began the set with “Multitude of Casualties,” from the “Separation Sunday” CD (“She drove it like she stole it / She stole it fast and with a multitude of casualties”), leading into the anthemic “Stuck Between Stations.” Finn worked the stage from one side to the other, leaning into the audience and exhorting them on like a fundamentalist preacher. Keeping the momentum high, the band segued into “Hurricane J” from 2010’s “Heaven is Whenever.” Although the song begins relatively quietly, it erupts in a hard pounding chorus that had half the house pogoing up and down in unison. It also featured the first of a handful of crowd-surfing episodes, as the swarm at the front of the stage belched up some regrettably heavy-set fellow, who was soon swallowed back into the morass, never to surface again.
THS debuted only a few new songs, although there is purportedly a new CD in the works, to be released sometime in 2013. “Wait Awhile” fared the best of the new lot, with Finn commenting afterward that the title “didn’t seem very rock ‘n roll,” but he preferred to turn the concept on its head, as in “wait awhile before stopping” drinking, partying, or whatever excessive behavior you’re engaged in. Primarily, the band stuck with old favorites, which suited the audience just fine. Tad and Steve shared a nifty guitar break during “Rock Problems,” and Tad followed that up with some tasty slide work on the ballad, “The Sweet Part Of The City.” After an unidentified new song, Finn and the boys blasted out “You Can Make Him Like You,” leading into “Constructive Summer,” both of which once again whipped the house into a frenzy. Finn introduced the equally crowd-pleasing “Chips Ahoy” as “a song about a boy, a girl, and a horse.” Way to fire up the pogo machine, Craig! It also marked the beginning of several singalongs, as the fans eagerly joined in on the “Whoa-aho-aho-aho”s.
More favorites followed: “Sequestered In Memphis,” began with a thunderous intro; “Southtown Girls” featured Tad and Steve trading guitar licks; and, of course, no Hold Steady show is complete without a rendition of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” Finn once remarked, self-deprecatingly, that The Hold Steady has “two and a half guitarists,” a wry comment on his limited instrumental abilities. But on this night, and on this song, he actually played some lead, with Tad and Steve joining in, creating an almost Allman Brothers-like sound.
Closing out the main set, THS turned to another singalong number, “Massive Nights,” from the “Boys & Girls In America” release (more “Whoa-ohs” for the lyrically-challenged among us to mouth), finishing the 85-minute show with “Slapped Actress,” from “Stay Positive.” And, what better way to end the evening than with the title track to “Stay Positive,” as an encore, given a lengthy treatment by the band. Midway through it, the band broke the song down to a slow, subdued tempo, giving Finn the opportunity to deliver a final sermon. He acknowledged that he’d expressed these sentiments on other occasions, yet he said there was simply no other way to describe it: “There is so much JOY in what we do!” With that, the band brought up the volume, allowing Finn time to traverse the stage from side to side one last time, hands folded in front of him as if in prayer, leaning over to thank the adoring fans at the front of the stage. We’d all partied hard, we’d been to church, and now it was time to go home.