This was kind of a dispiriting week in a lot of ways, but as mentioned in yesterday’s links dump, Kate and I had tickets for the Hold Steady in Albany last night. And since schools are closed next week, we packed SteelyKid and The Pip off to Grandma and Grandpa’s, and went to a rock show.
If you’re not familiar with the Hold Steady, you’re obviously not following me on Twitter, because I’ve been obsessing about them for a while now– since 2005 or so. They’ve been the world’s greatest band for about a decade now, and their new record, Teeth Dreams is excellent.
I saw them back in 2009, and Kate’s always looked at me kind of skeptically when I told her that Craig Finn is a great, charismatic front man. I asked her after the show last night and she said “He’s such a dork, but it’s infectious. That shouldn’t work, but it works really well.” And that’s a pretty good description– he’s barely a singer, he’s a terrible dancer, and some of his stage mannerisms are roughly equivalent to laughing at your own jokes, but somehow it all comes together into something brilliant. Mostly because he’s clearly having so much fun doing what he does.
(The same “That shouldn’t work, but it does” applies to a lot of their music, too. I mean, if you just described “The Cattle and the Creeping Things”, it would seem awful– stream-of-consciousness ranting about the Bible and drugged-up teenagers over a fairly minimal (if loud) guitar part. And yet, it’s somehow a great song in spite of that.)
(See also No Children by the Mountain Goats, another example of a song that seems like it should be awful, but is somehow brilliant. But I digress…)
That sense of fun was a striking contrast to the opening act, Cheap Girls, who were perfectly good musically (very 1996, not in a bad way), but pretty much looked nervous. The Hold Steady, on the other hand, were clearly having a blast, more or less across the board. We were way off to the left (facing the stage), where Kate had found a stool to sit on, in front of new guitarist Steve Selvidge and bassist Galen Polivka, who were joking around, striking poses, and occasionally spoofing Finn. During “Almost Everything,” which is really just Selvidge and original guitarist Tad Kubler playing, Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake were screwing around with incidental percussion.
The Hollow, where last night’s show took place, is a long narrow room with the stage at the front– see the crappy cell-phone picture up top– and I wasn’t entirely sure they’d be able to fit the band on stage, particularly given Finn’s high-energy style. They managed it, though, and ripped through about an hour and a half with almost no gaps. The set list may have been a little light on the new album, but then I might be saying that just because they didn’t play my current favorite track off it (“The Only Thing”), but they threw in some obscure older stuff, which was cool. They’ve recently reconfigured– keyboardist and mustache enthusiast Franz Nicolay left the band a few years ago, and they replaced him with Selvidge and re-arranged some of the old songs to move piano lines to guitar– so that was interesting to hear. And the crowd was really good– the room was full but polite, and a large fraction of them knew all the words to the songs. Kubler and Selvidge had mics for backing vocals, but they were largely superfluous, as the audience supplied most of those lines, and then some. (In fact, in a few places like the break in “Stuck Between Stations” Nicolay’s piano has been replaced with nothing at all, leaving a space for audience participation…)
— Between acts, Bobby Drake came out to adjust the drums himself, and Tad Kubler followed to do something with his gear (on the far side of the stage from me). And nobody appeared to notice that they were in the band, not just random roadies. I found that amusing.
— Finn went through multiple microphones, I’m not sure why. I couldn’t hear what was wrong with any of the ones he switched out, but the band was really loud.
— Speaking of microphones, the singer for Cheap Girls sang with his eyes closed, and kept his position by keeping his nose in contact with the mic at all times, more or less. Kate said “I really hope they’re going to replace that before anybody else uses it.”
— At the previous show I saw, Finn generally had a guitar, but I wasn’t convinced it was actually plugged into anything. He’s abandoned the pretense of playing guitar these days, allowing more time for his trademark dancing.
— Finn gave a shout-out to the local minor-league hockey team, and somebody in the crowd yelled out “Go Union!” Union’s hockey team just beat Boston College in the national semifinal (the “Frozen Four“), and tonight is playing Minnesota for the championship. Of course, Finn grew up in Minnesota, and went to Boston College, so he’s not a real big Union fan right now…
So, like I said, a great, fun evening that redeemed a bad week. If these guys are playing near you, I highly recommend checking them out. And Teeth Dreams is a really excellent rock record.
(This year brings not only Teeth Dreams but a new Afghan Whigs album in a week or two, and a new Old 97’s record in May. If somebody can get the Weakerthans and Fountains of Wayne to release new albums, this can be the Best Year EVER…)