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The Hold Steady Almost Killed San Diego...

The Hold Steady's Craig Finn Performs at The Casbah

And San Diego loved every minute of it. As predicted in this very space on Friday, The Hold Steady are the perfect example of a band whose hype and promise are impossible to understand until you've been to a concert. Before one gets a chance to jam into a sold out crowd at a tiny venue like the Casbah, the band just sends you one mixed signal after another. There's the singer, who looks like he may be like 40 years old in the press photos. There's the sometimes inelegant flows of the lyrics, which sound at times very similar to stuff on Bruce Springsteen's first two albums where he didn't so much sing as sort of let the words spill out of his mouth. There's multiple uses of the word "Hoodrat." And of course, there's the hype. The reviews for The Hold Steady's second album "Separation Sunday" have been so universally full of acclaim, that they run the inevitable risk of backlash from those who don't "Get It" right off the bat Well consider me one who was in the former group but who has been entirely coverted by the power of rock and roll that The Hold Steady exhibited last night.

The band came onstage at 11:45 last night in front of a sold out crowd at the Casbah. Singer Craig Finn started the concert the same way that Separation Sunday starts, delivering the opening lines of "Hornets! Hornets!" on his own as the more enthusiastic members of the audience spoke the words along with or before him. It was no doubt a surprise to any hipster who had walked in the door because of the hype, to learn that this band apparently had actual devoted fans who knew the words to the songs and weren't ashamed to show it. But over the course of the next hour and a half, The Hold Steady showed that they really weren't anything like what you'd expect from a typical buzz band.

Craig Finn Gesticulates
Singer Craig Finn's emphatic gestures only add to the spectacle

Finn's main intention for the duraiton of the show seemed to be delivering the lyrics to the songs as emphatically as possible. He wore a guitar strapped around his neck, but spent most of every song pointing to emphasize the lyrics. Pointing at the audience, at the ceiling. This was the kind of concert where multiple members of the band on several different occasions pointed at the ceiling. There were many moments where the song slowly crested on a sustained guitar chord or organ swell, as Finn started to share the moral of the song (usually how rock and roll could save your life) right before the drums kicked in extra heavy to bring it on home. Such moments can only really truly be summed up by an extended point to the ceiling, or maybe the sky beyond. At one such point in time, the guitarist and bassist high fived in between pointing. All was well.

The Casbah's PA might not have been the best suited towards understanding every words that Finn had to say, and that is a shame with any band as lyrically driven as The Hold Steady. But the energy he conveyed with his lyrics was equally as backed up by the band, who seemed intent on driving every song into a glorious, frenzied state. On the album, it might just be the limitation of the average home stereo that holds it back. The live setting found every instrument playing not just loud, but strong. The star of the show is obviously Finn, but guitarist Tad Kubler is just as important to the experience of the band. His solos were so epic and so perfectly suited to the moments they appeared in, that you began to take them for granted. I would find myself air drumming along to the beat, when all of a sudden I'd realize that Kubler had been wailing along for 15 seconds in a virtuoso display of rock, effectively getting the audience so riled up that they didn't even realize how it had happened.

The band takes off after their LA show to tour Australia, and then is back to the studio to work on their new album. They played at least four songs off the album, all of which retained a similar sound and feel to their previous work. A band playing unreleased songs can often cause a bit of a dip in the energy of the show, but these were songs that you felt like you had heard a dozen times before as soon as the first lick was played. Even with subjects such as suicidal alcoholic poets, as one song was introduced as, didn't stop-a-the-rockin'.

The band ended the show the way they began, playing the last song on Separation Sunday, "How A Resurrection Really Feels." The song has a epic, end of record, credits rolling feel to it, which, like everything else Sunday night, came across even stronger in concert. After the song was done, the rest of the band exited the stage, leaving Finn and keyboard player Franz Nicolay to finish up on their own. Fittingly, the evening, which was itself a visceral testament to the power of rock and roll, ended with a song that tries to put those feelings into words. As Finn sang "Certain Songs," which describes how the songs of Billy Joel and Meatloaf get "scratched into your soul," one got the sense that The Hold Steady were pulling off the ultimate feat in rock: respecting and paying tribute to the pantheon while adding a new chapter to it themselves. As the song wound down, a female fan near the stage yelled out "Don't leave San Diego! Stay here forever!" An honorable sentiment, but I would instead advise this: Go out and play shows like last night's for as many god damn people as you can. Once you've made believers out of the rest of the world, then come back and rock again for the believers you just created in San Diego.

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» Live Hold Steady from SXSW 2005 - Rock and Roll Before The Internet from San Diego Serenade
Everybody seems to be going to South by Southwest down in Austin this weekend. It sounds pretty awesome in terms of the sheer hugeness of it, but everybody seems primed to identify the acts that are going to blow everyone... [Read More]

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