The last time The Hold Steady played Houston in early 2007, they were riding the critical buzz off of Boys and Girls in America, but their audience size hadn’t really caught up to the buzz yet. The show was at Houston’s dive bar for national acts, Walter’s on Washington, which holds a little under 200 people. In the three subsequent years, the band’s profile has risen considerably. So when I found out the band would be playing the 1,500-capacity Warehouse Live in their return to Houston, it sounded just about right. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the show would be in the venue’s much smaller Studio room, which only holds about 350. Sure, the place was pretty much full by the time The Hold Steady hit the stage at 11:00pm. But if a few hundred fans is all a band as theoretically popular as The Hold Steady can draw in Houston on a Saturday night, then I’m beginning to understand why so many indie-rock acts play Dallas and Austin and skip over our fair city.
First up on this evening were Houston-based punks The American Heist. Their music was fast, grubby, and a little mean, but still catchy. They managed to get the still-small crowd pretty pumped up, and gravel-voiced frontman Tim Blackout has the perfect attitude to sell this sort of thing. They’re the kind of band that will draw favorable comparisons to a ‘90s act like Swingin’ Utters, but also a more current group such as The Gaslight Anthem. They turned out to be a pretty good match for The Hold Steady crowd. Following The American Heist was Chicago’s Company of Thieves. Fronted by the breathy-voiced Genevieve Schatz, their music was much more run-of-the-mill rock. They put on a decent show, but there wasn’t anything particularly memorable about their songs.
The Hold Steady opened their set to huge cheers from the crowd and started with “Hornets! Hornets!”, from their second album Separation Sunday. From there it was onto one of the highlights of this year’s surprisingly middling Heaven is Whenever, “Hurricane J.” Despite the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay at the beginning of the year, the band still more than lives up to their reputation as a great live act. Lead singer Craig Finn seems to put his all into every single song, and his energy feeds into the audience, who sends it right back to him with sing-alongs and fist pumps. Currently a four-piece in the studio, the band’s touring lineup now includes a full six members. In contrast to Nicolay’s old presence up front at stage left, new keyboardist Dan Neustadt spent the show shoved in the far stage right corner, right up against the wall. Touring guitarist Steve Selvidge has taken over Nicolay’s position on the stage, and he now handles the backing vocals along with founding guitarist Tad Kubler.
The setlist ranged far and wide, hitting tracks from all five of the band’s studio albums. The band blew through over 20 songs in about 90 minutes, from big crowd anthems like “Sequestered in Memphis”, “The Weekenders”, and “Southtown Girls” to more manic songs like “Charlegmagne in Sweatpants”. The great Stay Positive bonus track “Ask Her for Adderall” made a welcome appearance as well. Finn’s energy and wordy lyricism, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t translate into crowd banter. He mentioned that it had been a while since the band had played in Houston, but beyond that there was very little between-song interaction. At one point he seemed to be asking the audience a question, but it turned out to be his canned introduction to the song “Most People are DJs”. Still, this is a minor quibble in the midst of a great show.
As the concert went on past midnight, the crowd started to thin. By the end of the night, the audience was about half of what it had been. Seeing as it was a Saturday and the end of Daylight Savings (with an extra hour for everyone to sleep in the next morning), to boot, it was disappointing to see so many people leave early. Still, the crowd that remained was just as enthusiastic, and The Hold Steady’s energy didn’t diminish at all. “Chips Ahoy!” found the band completely blowing the second verse and having to start over, prompting Finn’s one original response of the night, joking, “We’ve played this song a million times, but you guys made us mess it up.” After that, they brought the show to a close with crowd-pleasers “Stuck Between Stations” and “Constructive Summer”, finishing the main set with Heaven is Whenever closer “A Slight Discomfort”. The short encore featured just two songs, the fist-pumping “Stay Positive” and the epic “How a Resurrection Really Feels”. Those of us who stuck it out through the end were treated to a heck of a finish.