Everything I've read about the Hold Steady says that they're a great bar band, which always seems a little improbable. I mean, the songs are complicated, with tons of words and odd subject matter ("I dig those awkward silences, 'cause I grew up in denial, and I went to school in Massachusetts"), and Craig Finn looks like a middle school teacher. It's hard to imagine him as a charismatic front man.
Hard as it is to believe, though, it's true. He came on stage in a plaid button-down shirt, enhancing the middle-school teacher look, and he does the dorkiest lead-singer dance I've ever seen, but somehow it all works. I'm not convinced his guitar was actually plugged in to anything, as he only intermittently seemed to play it, and even then, I couldn't pick up anything that was unquestionably him, but he jumped all around the tiny stage at Valentine's, and had the crowd wraped around his fingers from the first song.
The band is really tight, and they ripped through an hour-long set with basically no breaks. I think the longest gap between songs was about a minute, when the bass player had some sort of technical issue.
Their songs don't necessarily seem like great sing-along material, but there are enough "whoa-oh-oh" choruses and suchlike to work a lot better than you would expect. These also helped make up for the absence of some parts you hear on the albums-- the brass part in "Massive Nights," for example, was entirely replaced by audience yelling, and the female backing vocals that turn up here and there.
Valentine's is a tiny little place that, weirdly, has a bunch of different beers on tap. I say "weirdly" because the upstairs music room is the sort of space where you feel like you really ought to be drinking out of bottles. If that--they also had a bunch of terrible canned beers (Schaefer, PBR, Utica Club), that were going pretty fast. The fire code sign upstairs said 115 people, which I think was uncharacteristically generous of the fire marshal, but when the band got going, it seemed like more than that.
The crowd was a slightly weird mix of people, including both a bunch of college-age kids and middle-aged people like, well, me. I started out trying to be good and stay well back from the stage and the speakers (I do need to teach today), off by the bar, but it was the kind of show where you really don't get the feel from off on the periphery, so after a couple of songs, I worked my way over to the middle. I was maybe twenty feet from the stage, which still put me at the back wall, but the vibe was a lot better there.
The set list (linked above) was also pretty diverse. They played pretty much everything you would expect, along with a few things that I wouldn't've expected ("Cattle and the Creeping Things"). It all sounded fantastic, though. They didn't do any covers, or much in the way of extended versions of their own stuff, though there were two long-ish instrumental breaks during which they slipped in bits of other songs (one had keyboardist Franz Nicolay and guitarist Tad Kubler doing part of "Riders on the Storm," and the second was Kubler and Finn doing a bit of an Allman Brothers song whose name escapes me).
Anyway, if you get a chance to see them live, I definitely recommend it, preferably in a small and slightly seedy venue. It was definitely one of the best shows I've been to.
(If you're on Facebook, you can already see pictures from last night's show. The Internet is an amazing thing.)
I never went to Valentines (I don't think it existed when I lived there) but Ralph's used to have 10 cent beers.
Hold Steady is one of the newer bands (to me anyway) that have kind of revived my music interests. I'll stay with recordings or free festivals. Last time I was in a small seedy bar to listen to music was watching Betsy Kaske sing Heart of Saturday Night or Grapefruit Moon or somesuch at the Church Key in Madison. Reagan was a running for president then and the drinking age was 18.