This probably isnt news to a lot of you, but this past Thursday, January 15th, was the coldest Chicago winter day in twenty years. Not exactly the most ideal concert-going weather. Frostbite was rampant, your nose looked like an icicle to the point where you felt like Snow Meiser from The Year Without A Santa Claus, and Lake Michigan had frozen all the way through. There are very few bands whom I would potentially sacrifice all nasal and digital feeling for, and unfortunately for me, one of those bands was playing on this very night, forcing me to drag myself from the warm orange comfort of my house to the stark, gray tundra of the street. This band was The Hold Steady.
After my beard received an unwanted, white frost makeover from the crystallizing cold, Editor-In-Chief Mike Roffman and I entered the House Of Blues (five dollars per item at coat check – yay!) for the show, a benefit for several Chicago Cubs charities. As much as I loathe HOBs jacked up prices and saturated advertising throughout the falsely rustic atmosphere, I have to give them credit for their technical know-how and acoustics. Co-headliner and Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello (or as he calls himself in the third person these days, The Nightwatchman) and his Freedom Fighter Orchestra filled the cavernous room with their own brand of folk meets…um, Rage Against the Machine protest rock. Im a longtime Rage fan and having never heard Morellos solo work, I was excited to see what he had to offer.
Although his creaky, edgier than average folk songs were somewhat effective (The Lights Are On In Spidertown and The Road I Must Travel were both catchy and laced with spooky Western imagery), his rockier tunes teetered on the edge of nu-metal. Hearing Morello chant Im a one man revolution over crunchy power chords came off as a little too vague and contrived when compared with the laser light lyrical precision of any Rage song.
But Morellos major setback was his voice. His monotone talk-singing sounded a lot more like John Wayne than Nick Cave, and despite his ranting, political bombast, he couldnt hide his timid nature when it came to vocals, an instrument he still seems somewhat new at. The best moments of his set were when he let his guitar do the talking; scratching, spinning, and plucking the thing like a turntable, cranking out his trademark squeaks, explosions, and hisses before easily slipping into acoustic strumming, a welcome sound that weve rarely seen from him in the past.
I never thought Id say this, but Morellos political tirades of the night seemed a bit tame. Theres nothing wrong with a point of view, but spewing off against the war crimes of the Bush administration at the dawn of a new presidency from a candidate that Morello endorses (with reservations, of course) was overdone and ineffective. And retooling the words of AC/DCs Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap to be a manifesto against the W.s cabinet was just wrong.
Luckily, at the point when we were all checking our watches, The Hold Steady took the stage in darkness. Playing against the dusty drive-in movie backdrop from the album jacket of Stay Positive, Craig Finn and co. launched into a slowed down, almost eerie version of their latest albums title track that revved up with the first explosive chorus of whoa-oh-oh-ohs as the lights rose, snapping everything into sunny hyper speed.
Simply seeing The Hold Steadys songs performed live was a thrill. You could pull anything from their catalogue at random and it would still be a killer show. Four studio albums deep, every cut has the rough groove of a dive barroom brawl and more character and scenic development than a Jack Kerouac novel, one of frontman and wordsmith Finns biggest inspirations. Along with Okkervil Rivers Will Sheff, he remains one of the best lyricists in music today. Everything he writes about is gritty yet celebratory. The parties are tainted with heartbreak and violence while the drug deals propel Finns revolving cast of characters into hopes for a better future. And with the one two sequenced punch of tracks like Constructive Summer and Sequestered In Memphis (two of last years finest songs, indie or otherwise), above anything else, The Hold Steady is simply kickass rock music.
For the most part, the bands songs stayed true to their studio versions, the only deviation being Finns chatterbox delivery, which was fast even by his non-singer, Springsteen talk-poetry standards, and the absence of some of the more diverse instrumentation of their albums. Although I fell in love with the bare bones, man-the-torpedoes vibe of the evening, I was hoping mustachioed multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay would break out the accordion for Party Pit, the mariachi trumpet for How A Resurrection Really Feels or the glockenspiel for One For The Cutters as he had on the bands albums. Nevertheless, he opted to stick with only his keyboard instead, which was still a quirky delight that gave each song a fuller, richer sound.
For a band that constantly breaks the fourth wall in their lyrics, The Hold Steady rarely spoke between tracks, saving their volatile crowd-singer relationship for the songs themselves. Finn delivered virtually every one of his detail packed stories to the entire audience as if they had lived through them too, running, dancing, and jumping around the stage like a nervous freshman who had stumbled into an upperclassman party. It was a pleasure seeing him riff on the familiar characters of his songs (most notably the resurrected good girl gone bad Hallelujah Holly, antihero pimp Charlemagne, and skinhead Gideon), a rogue gallery of drifters, drug dealers, and born again’s who have made appearances on all four of the bands albums.
Whether it was the rough and tumble drug-induced trouble of Hot Soft Light, the macabre river predictions of Stevie Nix, or the racehorse luxury trauma of Chips Ahoy!, Finn acted out each frenetic tale with either his hands (snapping pictures on The Cattle And The Creeping Things, perpetually pointing to the crowd on Massive Nights) or his side comments, shoving the microphone aside when he wasnt singing, and questioning the audience on the lyrical content of each song (Stuck Between Stations: Oh my god, John Berryman killed himself…can you believe this? Have you heard of this?). It was a welcome burst of offbeat energy for most of the set. However, it would have been nice to see him drop the smirking giddiness for some of the heavier lyrical subject matter and give some of the darker songs the weight they deserve. Then again, Finn often acts as a third party observer in his songs, reacting in a variety of ways to his often blood drenched, beer soaked yarns of death, telepathy, and religion. Perhaps his exuberant musing was his character making sense out of everything. Or maybe it was just the band having a good time.
Despite my wish for a more serious tone from the frontman during certain sections of the evening, Minnesotas current favorite sons (move over, Replacements) showed us how vibrant, unpretentious, and just plain fun rock and roll can be. By playing with sincere ferocity and charisma, The Hold Steady included the audience in everything, cementing Finns stance that rock and roll has the potential to change lives. People often refer to them as the best bar band in the world, and although this most likely comes from their loose delivery and showmanship, its an unfair statement. Your run of the mill Skynyrd cover band could never build their own distinct, artful universe of characters and still rock them out like they were playing a well attended house party. So lets drop the bar band title. As Thursday night proved, The Hold Steady is simply one of the best bands in the world. Period. Now if only they could change the weather…
Additional photo support courtesy Stormy Lang…
The Nightwatchman & The Freedom Fighter Orchestra Setlist:
One Man RevolutionWhatever It Takes
The Lights Are On In Spidertown
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (AC/DC)
100 Little Curses (Street Sweeper – featuring Boots Riley)
Guerilla Radio (Rage Against The Machine)
Shake My Shit
The Ghost Of Tom Joad (Bruce Springsteen)
The Road I Must Travel
This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie – featuring Boots Riley)
The Hold Steady Set:
Hot Soft Light
A Multitude Of Casualites
The Cattle And The Creeping Things
Girls Like Status
Sequestered In Memphis
You Can Make Him Like You
One For The Cutters
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
Stuck Between Stations
How A Resurrection Really Feels