Killer party: The Hold Steady lead a triple threat
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
There’s no divider between the band and the crowd in this place. The stage itself is raised about a foot off the ground, and except for a gentleman’s agreement to not, say, steal a guitar, nothing separates musician from listener.
It was this atmosphere that contributed to an amazing evening of music, served up by a band that obviously thrives on making a connection with the audience. The lyrics, rife with unasked for advice, speak also of remorse, hope for the future and playfulness. And every word is so heavily stressed they feel like they might snap.
“There’s a real joy in what we do here on stage,” said Craig Finn, the evening’s master of ceremonies, as he launched into the last song of the evening. “We want to thank you for being here, and I just want to say one last thing to you guys. ... If they ask about Charlemagne, be polite, and say something vague ...”
So on what could have been a quiet Monday evening in Tucson, Arizona, three bands attempted to adequately complement each others’ greatness. Headliners the Hold Steady are throwbacks in the best way: lyrics matter, energy pours out in buckets, connection is king and, believe or not, they seem to be genuinely having fun on stage. The smiles don’t come across as being fake while they blow through riffs as though this is the last night of their last tour before the band’s bus flies off of a cliff somewhere on their way to Austin.
But they weren’t alone in the mayhem. Blitzen Trapper, from Portland, Oregon, flipped between the southern twang of the song “Texaco” to the manic rock of “Murder Babe,” complete with hand claps and impassioned “wooo!”s, all while serving up plenty of great guitar work, energy and even a Disney song during their set.
Illinois, hailing from Pennsylvania, displayed a versatility that recalled the best of Gomez, where the distorted vocals of “One on One” were coupled with matching guitar harmonies. There’s something sinister about the sound of their banjo strumming along to a thundering stomp. And all the while, lead singer Chris Archibald kept a party attitude in tact, bouncing about the stage and leading cheers for Blitzen Trapper, beer, genitalia and, of course, the Hold Steady.
Craig Finn is one of the most emotive frontmen working today. The mic stand is just as much his instrument as his guitar, and he swings it as an extension of his body while acting out the stories in his lyric-laden songs.
And he’s not the only mobile member of the band. Guitarist Tad Kubler does his best rock star move when the moment hits, swinging the guitar by its strap around his neck, while bass player Galen Polivka happily bounds about his area, checking in periodically with keyboardist Franz Nicolay.
The band’s set felt like a whirlwind, opening with the the trio of “Stuck Between Stations,” “Some Kooks,” and their indictment of the superficial highs of gambling, “Chips Ahoy!” And from there, it doesn’t let up. There are occasional quips entering into songs, but through it all, boyish smiles and the pure, unadulterated love of being on stage never let up.
The band threw a few curve balls that would’ve made Johan Santana proud, too. Opening up the encore after a break (or, as Finn put it, “I really just had to pee”) were two slower ballads: the accordian-led “Citrus” and the solemn “First Night,” capped with the refrain of “boys and girls in America / boys and girls in America / boys and girls in America ...” that truly brought the band even closer to the crowd than they had been all night.
The dance-hall ode “You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to the Dance With)” revved the energy back up, which led seamlessly into the band’s finale and mission statement, “Killer Parties.”
There was plenty of beer, screaming guitars and stories about lives. But it had to come to an end at some point, and with members of Illinois joining in the noise, Finn let out the band’s final lines of the evening triumphantly, as if laying claim to the title of being one of the most relevant bands performing today:
“We woke up in Ybor City, and we’re the Hold Steady.”