Indie rock's favorite bar band is also one of the best live bands around, a product of anthemic choruses, a highly expressive frontman, a lead guitarist who knows his way around great riffs, and, as the title of last year's live album pointed out, a positive rage.
"We're The Hold Steady and we're going to have a really good time tonight," singer Craig Finn told an ecstatic, inebriated dude-fest that had just finished cheering for a roadie who had brought out the band's cooler of beer.
Thursday night's show at The Fillmore in San Francisco came two days after the release of the Brooklyn band's new album, Heaven Is Whenever, and the crowd was ready to celebrate. And after commencing with the record's opener, the subdued, twangy "The Sweet Part Of The City," the party really started, with fists pumping, hands clapping, and the band digging deep into its quickly amassed five-album catalog.
It's been impossible to talk about The Hold Steady this year without mentioning the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, and most reviewers have pointed out his noticeable absence on Heaven Is Whenever. Nicolay and his mustache were certainly missed on Thursday, partly because the hired gun in the back kept getting lost in the mix in a way that no prime player would find acceptable, but also because the band's two-hour set included only eight songs from the two albums that he helped shape the most, 2006's Boys And Girls In America and 2008's Stay Positive. One can imagine that Nicolay would have fought hard to include more than three songs from Stay Positive, which he's been quoted as saying is his favorite Hold Steady record.
And while the new stuff sounded good, and early-days favorites like "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" and "Most People Are DJs" are always welcome, devoting four of the final nine songs to Boys And Girls In America acted as a reminder that The Hold Steady do have a best album, and it's not surprising that those tracks were the ones that got the fired-up crowd especially hot and bothered.
All that said, the band puts on a clinic every time it plays, and Finn's exuberance - replete with funny little dances, an oversized grin, and an energy that suggests he really does believe everything he's saying - is infectious. So if he wants everyone in the audience to clap along, that's what everyone does.
He's also an excellent storyteller (who sings more about his old Minneapolis stomping grounds than bands still in Minneapolis do), a skill that can be overshadowed onstage by distorted guitars. But when he breaks through, as he did during "Stuck Between Stations," all the guys on their bromantic dates shared a moment as they sang along: "There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right / Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together."
1. The Sweet Part Of The City
2. Rock Problems
4. Massive Nights
5. Constructive Summer
6. You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)
7. Hurricane J
8. Hornets! Hornets!
9. The Swish
13.Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
14.Sequestered In Memphis
15.Going On A Hike
17.Most People Are DJs
20.You Can Make Him Like You
21.A Slight Discomfort
22.We Can Get Together
23.Stuck Between Stations
24.Your Little Hoodrat Friend
26.How A Resurrection Really Feels