--------------------------------------------The Hold Steady, Monday, August 6, 2007
The Opera House, Toronto
You expect the indie rock power quintet The Hold Steady to come on stage and blow the Labatt Blue out of your hand with a killer power chord. But this isn’t exactly what happened. The band sauntered onto the stage, waved at the fans, and got their instruments organized. Lead singer Craig Finn grabbed the mic, looked at the audience, smiled, and started into the a capella opening of "Hornets! Hornets!" from the 2005 release Separation Sunday. The capacity crowd cheered wildly, but, by the second line, got deadly quiet, following Finn’s every lip movement, an odd but delightful phenomenon that rarely happens at rock shows. Of course by the time Finn finished the verse, “… with whoever's gonna get me the highest,” the crowd erupted.
The Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis-based band continued to rock the house, covering most of their superb 2006 release Boys and Girls in America. Finn and lead guitarist Tad Kubler both looked and dressed like they could teaching assistants for your sophomore level Comparative Literature class, not rock stars, and the long-time collaborators (both formerly of Lifter Puller) easily played off of one another. Kubler (who, according to a recent article in Spin, is from the same hometown and high school as my mom), stoically ripped mean licks from “Hot Soft Nights” (a song about “getting busted,” said Finn) and “Banging Camp,” while Finn spasticly danced, gesticulated, drank beer, and played rhythm guitar.
Early on my buddy Carly and I examined the crowd and were a little stunned to realize that we were at, or slightly under, the average age of the audience (our average age ~35.5). This never happens to me anymore! And, the male to female ratio was approximately 10:1. Most of the guys there were wearing jeans and Converse All-stars, and basically fit the description of every homogeneous white boy that I have ever dated. Lots of disciples of the Craig Finn school of fashion in the audience (i.e. nerd chic), not to mention the number of Molson-swigging du Maurier Light-puffing guys named Kent hitting on us and trying to convince one of us to get up on his shoulders (and he didn’t even offer to buy me a beer first, jerk). The odds were good, but the goods were odd.
We were maybe six rows of people to the left of center stage, in front of the very talented and eccentric keyboardist/ mouth-harpist/ accordionist Franz Nicolay. He and bassist Galen Polivka were practically putting on a side-show, singing the lyrics together, putting their arms around each other and dancing, truly looking like they were having a blast. Not such a small feat considering this was their fifth consecutive show, including Lollapalooza on Saturday the 4th.
There were two tracks that I really wanted to hear. First, “Barfruit Blues” mainly due to the verse “she said it's good to see you back in a bar band, baby. I said it's great to see you're still in the bars,” which reminds me of all of my 30-something friends who are not engaged, pregnant, or buying a condo. Right Carly? Second, “Chillout Tent,” a song which I really hated at first, but learned to love because the story telling and the line “he looked a lot like izzy stradlin” totally makes me laugh. However, this track would have been impossible to do as The Hold Steady are not touring with a female vocalist. But I did sing first alto in a women’s choir in college, and that was ONLY twelve years ago. I would have taken one for the team.
The band really nailed every tune, and I loved the accordion in “Modesto is Not That Sweet” and “Citrus.” There is not enough accordion in rock music, but you probably have to be from the upper Midwest and have been forced to dance to the “Too Fat Polka” to really appreciate that statement. The band closed with a kick-ass extended version of “Killer Parties,” (unfortunately the only track they played off of 2004’s Almost Killed Me) which included Nicolay playing keyboard chords that sounded like something from Sunday morning mass, thus emphasizing a faith-and-dependency metaphor that The Hold Steady often employ in many of their songs. Nicolay also wailed on the harmonic as a guitarist from Jon-Rae and the River, the opening band, joined in. Finn concluded by thanking everyone and acknowledging The Constantines, an alternative rock band based in Toronto, and then taking photos of the audience. Carly and I escaped into the fresh night air with our ears ringing, our bodies and brains still rocking, our livers hurting, and, thankfully, without Kent following.
Buy: Separation Sunday (2005)
Buy: Boys and Girls in America (2006)