By Michael Lello
ITHACA, N.Y. – At first glance, it seemed like a glorified dive bar where your elbows stick to the tables and the décor includes a Jagermeister banner and dartboard might not befit a band coming off a string of national TV appearances and rave reviews for its new album.
But c’mon, this is The Hold Steady. This is the place these guys – or at least the characters in their songs – live for.
This was apparent as the lights dimmed at The Haunt in Ithaca, N.Y., Saturday night and the strains of Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have A Good Time Together” pumped through the PA system. The band took the stage, frontman Craig Finn clapping his hands. He pointed out it was Saturday night, said “We have a new album out” and led the band into “I Hope This Whole Thing Doesn’t Frighten You,” the rip-roaring first song on said new record, “Teeth Dreams.” The bespectacled and blazer-wearing Finn, looking like an accountant after a few too many drinks at a convention, strutted the stage, gesticulated wildly and repeated lyrics off-mic, seeming to enjoy the music like a fan.
The fist-pumping “Constructive Summer” was next, and after a few snare drum hits by Bobby Drake at the end, “Hot Soft Light.” “This is a song about … Fuck … Girls, cigarettes, football. It doesn’t have any football in it,” Finn said to introduce “Big Cig,” another “Teeth Dreams” track that showcased Galen Polivka’s rumbling bass.
The maybe sarcastic, probably not “Girls Like Status” was all chugging, textured Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge guitars, a typical Hold Steady appropriation of classic rock. “You Can Make Him Like You” was bouncy, “Rock and Roll Problems” featured a Kubler/Selvidge guitar duel at center stage and “Magazines” was quick and tightly wound.
Ten songs in, the band finally slowed down with Teeth Dreams ballad “Almost Everything.” Another new song “The Spinners,” however, ratcheted things right back into top gear, its stop-start arrangement adding a tension-release dynamic to the “Teeth Dreams” standout. “Lord I’m Discouraged” was another introspective ballad, closing with a ripping Kubler solo on a double-neck guitar.
Finn joked about his rudimentary guitar playing (“I mostly gave up guitar as a New Year’s resolution. I turned 42 years old so it’s time to stop faking it”) but strapped one on for “Hornets! Hornets!.” He locked horns with Kubler for some neat guitar give-and-take.
“Sequestered In Memphis,” the rambunctious “The Swish,” which probably holds the record for most musical references, even in a Hold Steady song, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Slapped Actresses” formed the powerhouse set closer.
The band reemerged for a six-song encore, but not before Finn wondered aloud if Kentucky won its NCAA basketball game. “I think they won. I see blue celebrating on TV. That was a really good win financially for Bobby Drake, so we’re here to celebrate.” The encore included three tracks from “Boys and Girls In America”: the riffy “Stuck Between Stations,” the singalong “Massive Nights” and “Chips Ahoy,” an appropriate gambling song “about a boy, a girl and a horse,” as Finn put it. Kubler’s lengthy guitar intro slid into the grinding emblematic Hold Steady number “Stay Positive,”ending the show which clocked in at just less than two hours.
If you cut through the sweat and adrenaline of a Hold Steady show like Saturday’s, you’ll notice a couple things. These guys can really play. Each member has some serious chops on his chosen instrument, but the band’s music is mostly an exercise in tasteful restrain and power. When Kubler, for example, does get a moment to shine, it’s all the more impactful. Furthermore, Finn is probably the band’s least technically talented member – he knocks his own guitar work, and his nasally voice operates in a limited range – and most gifted performer. He is essentially his own hype man, running around, connecting with audience members and repeating his own lyrics in their faces for emphasis. It’s the classic total being greater than the sum of its parts, and with The Hold Steady, it pays off every time they take the stage or hit the studio.