Review: The Hold Steady at the 9:30 Club

Posted by Chris Heller
September 2, 2011 5:27 PM |
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Everybody goes to a concert to sing along with the band. But when crowds pack in to see The Hold Steady, they belt.

The Brooklyn outfit, who struck it big with 2008's Stay Positive and tempered expectations after 2010's Heaven is Whenever, has carved out a peculiar niche in the world of indie rock -- the band's music, from its narrative songwriting to driving guitar work, is all about evoking nostalgia for an era nobody really wants to go back to. They build these wistful recreations of miserable lives, stories about blitzed townies who struggle to survive dead-end suburbs and druggy twentysomethings who can't shake post-Christian guilt. It's the kind of music that makes you want to drive fast, drink hard, and consider using the kinds of drugs that might lead to psychiatric evaluations. The Hold Steady want you to reminisce about wild years that are almost certainly more wild that your own.

So it makes sense that when they hit the 9:30 Club on Thursday night, lead singer Craig Finn had a bit to say about getting older.

"I'm just glad that at 40, I'm still doing the best job I've ever had," Finn, complete with a noticeable paunch and patchy bald spot, said. With his elbows tucked in, his knees banging out, and his hands flailing -- Finn's best approximation at dancing -- he looked the schleppy office drone who drank too much at the company Christmas party, tried his hand at Mötley Crüe’s “Mr. Feel Good” on the karaoke machine, then puked in the janitor’s closet. Which is to say, the kind of guy who doesn’t exactly belong in a washed-out and cleaned-up world.

That’s where the energy of the show seemed to build from -- from this feeling of not quite belonging, of missing this time when a freak flag was a point of pride.  The eclectic crowd thrived on that energy, so they sang. And boy, they got loud. In the encore of a 24-song set, the crowd practically drowned out the three guitars on stage. The noise caused that kind of itchy ear-ringing that almost certainly precludes tinnitus. And save for one new song, they knew every damned word.

When the band kicked into the show-ending “Killer Parties” -- and opening act The Donkeys rushed on stage to join the fun -- it almost felt like the kind of moment that the crowd was chasing. Then the stage cleared out, the noise dimmed down, and the lights flickered on -- a sober end to a party that almost was.

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