“It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.” Those were the words of Dizzy Dean spoken by WXRT’s Ken Sumka who introduced The Hold Steady Thursday night at Metro.
The Hold Steady’s reputation as one of the best live acts in rock tends to precede them. Having released five albums since 2004, the band has toured relentlessly. Despite several recent Chicagoland appearances though, this was the first time I had the opportunity to catch them live… and back it up they did.
It seems you can’t read anything about The Hold Steady without also reading some sort of reference to the band’s Springsteen influenced sound. While that’s certainly an influence (lyrically and musically), I would take it a step further and say that an even bigger influence on the band (especially live in its current format) is the music of The Replacements (which makes sense considering frontman Craig Finn grew up in Minneapolis).
I was curious to see what form the band would take on this tour. Following keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s departure in 2010 (he didn’t play on the band’s 2010 album Heaven is Whenever), The Hold Steady toured with Dan Neustadt on keyboards for a bit. However, the band arrived at Metro on Thursday with a third guitar in lieu of keyboards and consisted of Craig Finn (vocals/guitar), Tad Kubler (lead guitar), Galen Polivka (bass), Bobby Drake (drums) and Steve Selvidge (guitar).
The Hold Steady’s songs have come to rely quite heavily on keys so touring with this lineup was not only a departure but also a risk. But ultimately, the third guitar gave the band a grittier, punkier sound that worked.
From the opening notes of 2005’s “Hornets! Hornets!” The Hold Steady plowed through over an hour and a half of songs about religion, drugs and redemption that backed up all of the hype I’ve heard over the past year regarding their live shows.
The best part of the set came early on with a trio of songs consisting of the first two tracks from 2006’s Boys and Girls in America and the band’s biggest commercial hit (“Chips Ahoy,” “Station to Station,” and “Sequestered in Memphis”). It was on “Station to Station” where the third guitar became not merely a touring necessity but instead a weapon.
Following “Sequestered in Memphis,” animated frontman Craig Finn slowed things down for a bit with a story about spending his fortieth birthday earlier in the week bowling in Milwaukee Monday night (where the band kicked off the current tour). “I’m really glad to turn forty and have my job be the lead singer of a rock n’ roll band!” exclaimed the always gracious Finn as his narrative vocal went on to accompany the band’s atmospheric stylings on “We Can Get Together.” Craig Finn may not look the part of a rockstar but he certainly acts it. He’s animated and his intelligent lyrics combine with Randy Newmanesque vocals to make him the perfect frontman for what has so often been referred to as one of America’s best bar rock bands.
The pace picked back up with “Same Kooks.” Tad Kubler is an outstanding guitarist and one of his best solos came during that performance. “The Weekenders” however featured not only Kubler’s best solo but also one of Finn’s best lyrics (“She said the theme of this party’s the industrial age / And you came in dressed like a train wreck”). The song was short and sweet and one of the hardest rocking of the night.
As the evening rolled toward completion, the band showcased its knack for “woh-oh-woh-oh” sing-a-long choruses one last time with the loudest audience participation of the night on “Stay Positive” (yes, louder than the reaction to a slightly sloppy take on Huey Lewis’ “The Power of Love” shortly before).
But it was a bit earlier where Finn really summed up the show best. As the band finished 2005’s locally damning “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night,” he informed the sold out Metro crowd that in fact “Chicago’s pretty [damn] amazing tonight!” As were The Hold Steady.