The first time I consciously recall The Hold Steady wasn't a result of listening to them, it was reading about them. Zombie Underground was basically one guy writing about whatever he felt like in short, visceral bursts, and his "review" of Boys and Girls in America was not so much a review but the story of the dissolution of his marriage, and how the album helped him get by. Five minutes after finishing the review I drove to the nearest store and picked it up. In short order I devoured Boys and Girls... and bought follow-up Stay Positive and previous album Separation Sunday. Craig Finn's lyrics and delivery managed a drunken, sincere poetry that was both instantly modern even as it reached back to the best songwriters from thirty years ago, and the music - a cross of E-Street Band and indie rock - redefined what constitutes a "bar band".
The Music Hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a cozy venue that's modeled in the same fashion as the Bowery Ballroom in New York. Plenty of room downstairs to drink and lounge, and a stage that's not so far removed from the floor you feel a disconnection. I was there courtesy of Indie Maven Sean, who has a habit of remembering everything you say about music, and graciously gave me first crack at his extra ticket to see The Hold Steady's second gig of the day (they had played only hours before in NYC).
The Oranges Band opened the show. At this point I wasn't really taking pictures (the above is courtesy of Sean), just trying to get back into the groove of live music - it had been close to a year since I had seen a live show. Sean told me after the set that this wasn't their best showing, both he and the band pointing out that they replaced their drummer just a few days ago and had a new bassist. I hope so - the impression I got was just another indie rock band, which nothing to separate them from a crowd of hundreds of others that might be playing a small club somewhere. Singer/Guitarist Roman Keubler had a decent presence on stage, but overall I wasn't clamoring to go out and check them out further.
Once The Hold Steady took the stage, things took off. The opened with a track off their forthcoming album Heaven is Whenver, "The Sweet Part of the City" which feels like the logical extension of Stay Positive. From there they jumped right into the classic stuff, ripping into "Constructive Summer" and "Hot Soft Light" and everything in between.
Lots of high points to the night, especially Finn's manic mugging to the audience, often repeating lyrics just sung away from the microphone with a shit-eating grin as if to say, "Can you believe this shit? I know!" The crowd did believe this shit, and we ate it up, laughing, clapping and singing along to every track. And even though Stay Positive as a complete record ranks somewhat behind Boys and Girls in America and Separation Sunday for me, the actual song "Stay Positive" killed towards the end of the night.
It was close to 2:00 AM by the time they came out for the encore, playing "Citrus", a fantastic version of "First Night" and closing out with crowd favorite "Your Little Hoodrat Friend". The energy from the show had my up until 4:00 AM. There are some band that kill it live and suffer on tape, there are some bands that only work on tape. And then there are The Hold Steady.