THE HOLD STEADY live at Arch Street Tavern. Hartford CT. 7.19.12
A music historian would likely trace the lineage of many of my favorite current bands — Titus Andronicus, Japandroids, No Age, and even local acts like 10,000 Blades — back to the 1980s college rock scene. With their emotive lyrics, dynamic frontmen, and blistering punk guitar onslaughts, these bands have built their careers on channeling the best qualities of The Replacements, X, and other great 80s punk groups. Now of course I love all these newer bands, and I’m glad that the punk rock tradition is carrying on with the new generation of which I consider myself a part, but let’s be real: None of these bands actually lived through the 1980s, nor do they have much first hand experience with the kind of indie rock that they so openly ape.
But there is at least one exception. Fronted by the literarily lyrical and endlessly energetic 40 year old songwriter Craig Finn, The Hold Steady are something like elder statesmen of the current wave of anthemic indie rock. Craig Finn has both the lyrical self-awareness and experience that comes with age, and the youthful vigor of performers much younger than him. To use an analogy, he is to modern indie rock what LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy is to underground electronic music. He’s losing his edge, and he knows it. All of these qualities, in addition to the fact that The Hold Steady as a whole are just an incredibly tight and excellent rock band, made the prospect of their live show extremely enticing to me when I first heard about their performance at Hartford’s Arch Street Tavern last Thursday.
Arriving at the Arch Street Tavern was like taking a step back in time to the 1980s bar rock scene that The Hold Steady have written so many of their songs about. After waiting in a lengthy line to get into the club, I got both of my hands x’d up in full DC hardcore style by the bouncer. As I walked in, the club was playing ’80s pop hits and a crowd was beginning to coagulate. I felt like I was in St. Paul in 1984 and I was about to see Hüsker Dü. Eventually I remembered that I was actually in Hartford in 2012, and that the Hüskers broke up 24 years ago. Thankfully, The Hold Steady have enough songs about growing up in the Twin Cities to ease the frustration of my unfortunate modernity.
This being a bar rock show, there were a couple of opening bands. The first act was nothing special — an inoffensively generic blues rock group by the name of Mount Carmel. The second band, however, was definitely worth getting excited about. On the heels of a lengthy tour in support of their new album Major, out July 24th on Sargent House, the Providence power-poppers Fang Island were tacked onto this show a few weeks in advance. If you haven’t heard Major yet, their presence on this bill might seem curious, but if you give the new record a listen, you’ll probably understand why it makes sense. Featuring a refined focus on traditional singing and song structure, their new material verges on straight up pop rock at times, with the band’s signature three-part guitar leads taking a backseat to frontman Jason Bartell’s sunny, nostalgic vocalizations. It was clear that the group was excited for tour, as their collective energy level was maxed out throughout the entire performance. This clear eyed, high octane vigor made tracks like “Seek It Out” and Fang Island’s “Daisy” sound particularly inspired, even if most of the crowd didn’t seem quite as energized.
The slightly less than ecstatic reaction to Fang Island’s set, along with the relatively high average age of the Arch Street Tavern’s attendees on this particular night, had me worried that The Hold Steady’s set would be a similarly subdued affair. Those fears were alleviated immediately as the band took stage, decked out in their best middle-aged punk rocker outfits, beaming and waving at the enthralled crowd. After a quick introduction, the show began in the best way possible — with Stay Positive’s anthemic opener “Constructive Summer.” As Craig Finn gleefully reminded the crowd that “we can all be something bigger,” I could feel the cold, cynical hearts of audience members of all ages slowly begin to warm up. By the time they got to playing Separation Sunday’s “A Multitude of Casualties” and their most recent single “Hurricane J” a few songs later, nearly everyone in my immediate vicinity was dancing, jumping, and shouting along to all the words. I might as well have been at a Titus Andronicus show.
In their nearly 10 years as a touring band, The Hold Steady have earned an impressive reputation as a live act, but ever since the departure of keyboard player Franz Nicolay in 2010, I’ve been somewhat skeptical as to whether that reputation holds up anymore. Although Nicolay’s presence was sorely missed on songs like “Stuck Between Stations,” which features a gorgeous piano breakdown on record, the band opted mostly for more traditional guitar-based numbers in their 20+ song setlist, which included tracks from each of their five full length records. Deep cuts like “The Swish” from 2004’s Almost Killed Me and the Boys and Girls In America bonus track ”Girls Like Status” made for particular highlights for the crowd, which evidently comprised some extremely devoted fans. The band also debuted some new material that sounded much more in line with the hard-edged rock sound of records like Separation Sunday than their most recent album Heaven Is Whenever.
All throughout the show, Craig Finn was in top form as a frontman, encouraging energetic crowd participation and delivering inspirational punk rock altruisms with a degree of sincerity that only he could pull off. In perhaps the most telling moment of the show, Finn admitted that although rock and roll was built mostly on lies, his goal as a performer was to offer us a little bit of truth. He was being modest — whether it was a hopeful reminder to girls stuck in dead-end relationships or a simple plea for everyone to “Stay Positive,” everything that came out of Finn’s mouth that night was the truth. Thankfully for those of us in attendance, we didn’t have to choose to believe what he was saying — the fantastic songcraft, emotive delivery, and the legendary guitar playing of Tad Kubler did all the convincing we could have needed.
Setlist - 7/19/12
- 1. “Constructive Summer”
- 2. “Hot Soft Light”
- 3. “A Multitude Of Casualties”
- 4. “Hurricane J”
- 5. “Look Alive” (new)
- 6. “Girls Like Status”
- 7. “The Swish”
- 8. “Teeth Dreams” (new)
- 9. “The Sweet Part Of The City”
- 10. “You Can Make Him Like You”
- 11. “Rock Problems”
- 12. “Magazines”
- 13. “Chips Ahoy”
- 14. “Stuck Between Stations”
- 15. “Sequestered In Memphis”
- 16. “Charlemagne In Sweatpants”
- 17. “Wait Awhile”
- 18. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
- 19. “Southtown Girls”
- 20. “Banging Camp” (encore)
- 21. “Massive Nights” (encore)
- 22. “Stay Positive” (encore)