The Hold Steady- Ottawa Bluesfest, Subway Stage.
Sat. July 17, 2010
By: Sean Taylor
Photos: Mike Bouchard
Its no secret that I am a fan of The Hold Steady. A huge fan even. I think its fair to say that they are probably my favorite band, and although my level of devotion to the band wanes between releases, with each new album I get a fresh jolt of energy and enthusiasm and once again immerse myself in their tales of rock n roll redemption. I get reacquainted with Gideon and Charlegmagne, learn new things about those old favorite songs and have little voids in the hole of the storyline filled in -- getting my ass kicked a little bit more by the best bar band in America. I suppose in a way a new Hold Steady release and tour for me are nothing short of a rebirth.
With the release of the newest effort, Heaven Is Whenever (May 10, 2010 on Vagrant Records), all of these feelings were conjured up; but with a new found trepidation. You see, HiW is the first Hold Steady album since Seperation Sunday without lauded multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay. Franz's recent departure meant that not only would his signature additions on keyboards be absent, but also a huge hole at the front of the stage would likely be hard to fill without the most raging 'non singer- front man' in history.
In April I did get to see a show in Syracuse featuring the new lineup, but it was mere 5 or 6 shows into their time with new additions Steve Selvidge (formerly of Lucero) and Dan Neustadt. I don't really think the band had gelled at that point- or had enough time to practice well into the back catalog. Despite this they still put on a fantastic show that night at the Westcott Theater, unveiling no less than 5 new songs for us. Recently, I found out I would once again be seeing a 'new' Hold Steady lineup as Neustadt was unavailable and another key player was put in place for the Toronto and Ottawa tour wrap up shows. All of this said, The Hold Steady don't play music requiring hours of studying charts to get a grasp, so the transition to THS 3.0 was rather seemless.
The first thing that should be noted in any Hold Steady discussion is there comes a time when it generally comes down to a single point- and most of the time it starts with this one: that Craig's vocal style isn't "singing". I have never liked any music that has elicited more love/hate reactions than Craigs vocals. Obviously, being a fan I love it, but I think it stems more from my attention to the content of the lyrics than the actual delivery. Never before have I loved rock n roll lyrics more than Mr. Finns, not from Bruce or Bob or Robert. If you don't like the delivery- at least do yourself the favor of looking up the words, they'll likely draw you in. While esposing the Hold Steady to anyone who might listen and hearing this same retort again and again- I should say that I have found that in the live setting that this particular complaint is softened a great deal when the music is not coming through your home stereo. Live they are a bombastic unit of power, energy and postivity and Finns vocals/lyrics seem to just be there and enhance the sound rather than punctuate it.
Sadly for readers of jambands.ca THS are not at all a jamband in the typical sense of the word. I don't think I have ever heard a particular version of any song that was standout because of musical improvisation, or seen anything stretched out beyond say a second go round for a Tad solo. What they do in the vein of the jamband culture is bring together the crowd for an evening of music and revelry; they change up their setlists on a nightly basis; have a whole host of aces up their sleeve when it comes to the vaunted bust out; and even have a dedicated fan base called The Unified Scene that is very similar in many ways to my early experiences with the Phish community.
As the sun blazed down and no big stage announcement came it was easy to miss The Hold Steady taking the stage. Catching the crowd slightly off guard with this inauspicious entrance, The Hold Steady took the stage no less than 10 minutes before their scheduled start time and got straight down to business. The hot and blustery conditions of a mid-July early evening ate up the delicate guitar intro to the set opener Sweet Part of the City- but the song slowly built to power at the first kick drum/bass note and rolled along warming up the ever attentive crowd. This song has certainly become the opener of choice on this tour- appearing first at over half of the shows- but I think it fits well here and should remain an opener. It's got all the elements of a Black Crowes song (IMO) but with Craig’s fantastic lyrics sung/spoken over top. The crowd was clearly impressed as Craig belted out "We like to play for you" in the final measure and the crowd let out the first big cheer. At this point I'd say the crowd numbered near 500ish, most of whom were crowded up in front and the far reaches of the filled area were about halfway back to the sound tent.
In typical Hold Steady fashion, as they finished the final licks of SPOTC, immediately Tad came wailing in with the guitar intro to Rock n Roll Problems. This is the way the band does it; not much stage banter between tunes just four on the floor rock n roll with no let up on the accelerator. The ubiquitous Constructive Summer followed and then the band slowed it down for a bit of a breather in the form of a slow burning and welcomed fav: 'Multitude of Casualties' (this song contains the line "at least in dying you don't have to deal with new wave for a second time" line referenced in Thursdays review). After two more songs I more than expected to get in the festival setting (the band definitely has a short list of songs it selects when playing to new audiences)- another little oldie: Barfruit Blues. A fantastic number and this one featured some extra fiery guitar work from 'the new guy' Steve.
As the band continuted to blow through a set filled with high energy songs, I managed to have one of the best times I've ever had at a Steady show. Usually I am crammed in at the front with all of the other crazies, where we spill beer on each other and scream as loudly as possible back at Craig. But here in Ottawa at Bluesfest, I was outside with as much space as I needed, while being simultaneously able to walk to within 50 feet of the band. The whole event that is a Hold Steady show reached a whole new level for me as I gazed across the ever increasing crowd. What I witnessed were smiling faces, fists pumping and looks of amazement. Adding to this revelry- I was watching MY band about 10 minutes from home, with my best friends- I truly thought I was in heaven. The theme of heaven as concept of longing, idealism etc. is a mainstay on the new album and of course the next song that followed was We Can Get Together. The chorus "heaven is whenever, we can get together- lock your bedroom door and listen to your records" is a teenage fantasy described with such vagueness and beauty that in that moment I think every audience remembered such a long burning memory of past loves (perhaps a woman- perhaps a favorite record).
As I noticed people singing along, high fiving and raising their cups- I knew this was not a typical Hold Steady crowd- this was not my Unified Scene, those same faces at every show so when I turned around to realize that the crowd had swelled to about double the size as when it had started I felt a strange sense of pride for the boys from Brooklyn. The skins, the punks and the greaser guys were all singing along together the way Craig sang about on "Joke about Jamaica" and I saw that other people were getting this thing, that for better or for worse I just wish more people would understand.
Another run of songs that would have been picked all over PT's Daily Dose (if a Phantasy Hold Steady board existed- bouche?!) and we were at Your Little Hoodrat Friend. This is one of my favs, and this version certainly did not disappoint. Despite a fill in guy on keys, one member who has played less than 50 shows with them, a short 90 minute time slot to use and the hot as hades sun beating in their faces- The Hold Steady were easily winning over an entire field of people who were well into their 11th day of live music.
Before the show I had asked a friend about the line "she said: City Center used to be the center of the scene. Now city center's over. No one really goes there. Then we used to drink beneath this railroad bridge. Some nites the bus wouldn't even stop. There were just way too many kids." Well when they plaeyed that a small group on the front hand side at the right utterly exploded. Obviously they had discussed it before, that THS were playing in the shadow of a concrete dinosaur described in one of their songs to a tee. Coincidence or not, it was another moment where I just couldn't believe I was seeing this, here in Ottawa.
There were more than a few moments when Craig clearly had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand with his swagger and meth freak antics- but during Massive Nights he stepped forward in front of the monitors for a little more intensity. It was as it always is- a rager culminating with the Woo Ooo Ooh sing along chorus that had many an audience member singing along presumably for the first time ever to a Hold Steady song. The finale of How A Ressurection Really Feels (this is my absolute HS fave) could not have sent me into a further reach of the atmosphere. While Tad really killed the solo and the whole thing wound down to the line "Don't turn me on again, you know I'll probably just get myself all turned all turned on again Don't turn me on again Cause I know I'll probably just go and get all gone again" I thought a little bit to myself about what I'd seen that night, this tour and from this band in general (standing at about a dozen shows over 4 years- and 3 new album releases). I arrived at this during the final stanza: that every time my devotion has waned and I've gone away for a bit- the band comes back with something new and I get a little taste and suddenly I'm on the street corner trying to get money for a new 7"'s and some tickets. Can't wait for the next album- at least this high is legal ;-)
- Sweet Part of the City
- Rock n Roll Problems
- Constructive Summer
- Multitude of Casualties
- Sequestered in Memphis
- Hurricane J
- Barfruit Blues
- Barely Breathing
- We Can Get Together
- You Can Make Him Like You
- Southtown Girls
- The Weekenders
- Chips Ahoy!
- Stuck Between Stations
- Your Little Hoodrat Friend
- Massive Nights
- How a Resurrection Really Feels