The best concert is also an event. Whether it’s Tom Waits’ opening show on his first tour in forever (read here), or the one-off reunion concert of a band like Led Zeppelin, knowing you are sharing a unique experience with a group that values it just as much as you do adds something you can’t get on a random stop of a fifty-city tour. So even though this was just one stop for the Hold Steady, they billed it right, in a few ways.
1) It was the opening night of their long summer tour.
2) It was announced only a week before the show.
3) It was free
4) It was in a 650-person bar.
And what a bar. The Paradise Rock Club is as small a venue as you’re likely to find these days, with patrons leaning on the stage in front of a floor no bigger than a rich person’s living room. Since the room was arranged wide instead of long, one could have come halfway through the show and still been fifteen feet away from the stage. This meant many, if not most people there were getting a side view of the show, but with the ample bars around the sides, that seemed to be the preferred choice.
Right at nine local openers Aberdeen City scurried out with little fuss. The Boston area’s go-to opening act, the four met at Boston College (where Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn also went) in 2001 and have been working the local circuit since. An unusual-looking collection of individuals as you’re likely to find, you had the Hives-esq lead singer, Lynyrd Skynyrd-esq drummer, Sex Pistols-esq guitarist, and another guitarist who looked too Entourage-metrosexual to have anything to do with a rock band. Though talk before the show circulated about how sikc locals were of this group, they performed dark but lively capital-r Rock with guitars and choruses as big as U2. Though songs like “God Is Going to Get Sick of Me” come off as a little angsty, the quartet played like a group comfortable enough with each other to go through the songs like they were second-nature. A shame that this ease came to an end tonight, as it was guitarist Ryan Heller (the metro one)’s final show.
Quick and precise crew movement opened the stage up for the larger Hold Steady, and by time the lights dimmed to splash the brand-new infinity logo across the curtains, the crowd was worked into a frenzy. Appropriate enough for the “Constructive Summer Tour,” the band opened with the song of the same name. Though the Stay Positive album doesn’t technically come out until July, the band knew everyone in the place had been listening to the leak. So they focused mainly on the new songs, hitting every one during the night except “Both Crosses.” It proved a worthwhile risk, when the crowd’s singing was as enthusiastic for “Sequestered in Memphis” and “Stay Positive” as for older material like “Chips Ahoy!” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.”
Such crowd participation, tangential to most concerts, give Hold Steady concerts the energy that has made them legendary in the indie world. Constant “woah-oh-oh” choruses are tailor-made for singing along, but the mass managed to keep up with the hyper-wordy verses just as well, so much so that Finn ignored the mic half the time and just shouted the lines about prescription drugs and bored suburbanites out with the crowd. As he tells us in the opening moments of the album (and concert), “Our psalms are sing-along songs.”
It’s a classic Finn trick, but only one of many that have led me to this conclusion: Craig Finn is the best frontman in rock today. That’s right, I said it. Better than veterans like Springsteen, better than upstarts like Jack White. His enthusiasm and unbridled energy onstage rival what you always hear about The Boss’ shows in the 70’s, Finn running all over the stage dragging his mic stand with him, perching precariously on the edge amidst the crowd’s arms and faces. When he doesn’t have lines to sing, he shouts them off-mic anyway, adding big facial expressions and grand gestures to match. Moreover, he makes grinning cool again, having such a sweat and beer-soaked blast onstage that his bandmates spend half the show grinning at him themselves.
More than just foils for Finn’s exuberance, the band gives the music the energy to match the vocals. The bass-drum rhythm section pounds out the backbeat to support Tad Kubler’s lead guitar riffs (played at one point on a double-necked guitar completely unironicly) and poppy keyboard melodies by Franz Nicolay, looking like a double-breasted Mario. Though due too the word-heavy lyrics and unusual subjects, Finn may be right when he sings “The boys in the band, they know they’ll never be stars,” with such arena-friendly material and energy, they damn well should be.
Sequestered in Memphis
The Cattle and the Creeping Thing
Joke About Jamaica
Lord I'm Discouraged
Stuck Between Stations
Don't Let Me Explode
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
One For the Cutters