Hopefully, we can have a Viking funeral for this tiresome bit of Chambana folklore that proclaims the lack of good shows issuing forth, and proceed to the real crux of the matter: If you think this is the fate that our little Midwestern musicopolis has succumbed to, then you simply aren’t trying, my friend. Be the change you want to see in your scene.
By all accounts, campus (yes, campus) was ground zero for some great shows on Friday, April 3. The Red Herring played host to an attentive audience enjoying a slew of local and out-of-town acts, featuring a band with a favorable girl-to-guy ratio and an ambient group displaying Super 8 footage on white bed sheets! In a world with myriad choices, I had my heart set, for many weeks, on The Hold Steady show at the Courtyard Café.
With partner-in-crime and Sprite bottle in tow, I set out for the Illini Union amidst a potpourri of undergraduates and downtown folk, complaints of pre-show ticket availability (or lack thereof), and Courtyard haterdom. Yes, I concede there was hardly any advance advertisement that pre-show tickets were available, and the sound at the Courtyard has been known to be atrocious (indeed, this show had its share of near-exploding low end heavy P.A. speakers and crowd-kicking-monitor-cable-disconnect issues). Still … The Hold Steady brought it, because that is what they do best: bring it.
The show opened with the Philly-based three piece, The War on Drugs, which derives its name from the witch hunt drug policy born of the Nixon years. From the beginning, they lured us in with strong driving monotonous rhythms and reverb-heavy twelve string guitar. The members showcased their multiple musical facets, which saw the lead singer Adam Granduciel going from acoustic twelve string to electric, and finally landing on keyboards. Along with the bass player, the rhythm section was heavily anchored by the double floor tom-laden beats of the drummer, who also manipulated some sort of drum machine or sampler on one number. The sound could best be described as psych-folk-surfer-punk with electric Dylan vocal tendencies. All of this, amalgamated into one package, made for a pretty rich soundscape that brought about echoes of a psychedelic take on Neutral Milk Hotel or Uncle Tupelo. Although at times this psychedelia was drawn out into some jammy elements that could have been contained slightly, I was much impressed with what they brought to the table in their succinct opening set.
I was initially a little unsure about the combination of a student venue and “America’s greatest bar band”, but the opening riffs of “Constructive Summer” waylaid my concerns. “Our psalms are sing-along songs.” Exactly. From the outset, all 40 or so people, fortunate enough to be front and center of the six-inch-high stage, were full of saluting fist pumps and mimicked every single word as audible as Craig Finn through the P.A. system.
The miracle of The Hold Steady is the way they seamlessly combine all the things we love about the drive of rock and roll, the energy of punk, and the lyrical-driven nature of our favorite underground hip-hop groups. In fact, to call Craig Finn a singer is a slight misnomer. I propose the term baritone-rock-emcee, especially considering the influence he draws from former hometown Minneapolis hip-hop goliaths Atmosphere and Brother Ali.
The set was nicely balanced with songs from all four full-lengths they have put out since 2004. Some personal favorites were “One for the Cutters”, which always brings about images of a cross between classic coming of age movies: The Outsiders and Breaking Away; and “Party Pit”, which contained standard crowd participation in the clap-heavy midsection. The way Finn’s lyrics string together images of popular culture, along with narratives about being a part of a scene as well as the — sometimes high, often drug and alcohol induced — costs of fitting in, make their music even more accessible and proximal.
Even if some of the stories take certain liberties with the facts, they definitely transport the listener to relatable stories of similar characters in their own lives. With such a potent combination, it’s no surprise that random crowd surfing and mild stage rushing took place. The latter action was stymied from escalation by Finn swaying with the surge and the band subtly gesturing to the crowd that they needed to keep it peaceful, which they did. Although the venue has some subpar attributes, the band managed to turn these minor inconveniences into a superb show. I surely left pleasantly satisfied, ears ringing, maybe slightly damaged. Well worth it.
So even though you probably won’t find The Hold Steady pounding whiskey before shows on their tour bus anymore, or living the classic rock and roll lifestyle many of us probably envision, they still bring all the enthusiasm of the 16-year-old picking up the electric guitar for the first time and being transformed by its power. They love what they do, and it shows.