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The Hold Steady

(17 Dec 2011: Brooklyn Night Bazaar — New York NY)

Indie champs, The Hold Steady, rocked their surrogate hometown to the ground on the last night of the three-day Brooklyn Night Bazaar, proving that heaven is not only whenever, it’s wherever, these Twin City kiss-offs plug in.


Judging by the leery looks filing into the giant cinderblock, it seemed like it was everyone’s first time at 149 Kent Street, the vast Williamsburg warehouse. Inside, there was a maze of vendor tables, like a Portlandian Sam’s Club. Pea-coated Brooklynites pushed past retro typewriters and other kitsch goodies, mainly looking for the end of the Asia Dog line. This is not the kind of crowd that carries coupons, although the guy who got a leg tattoo under the vegan quiche table definitely carried something.


Toting cups of Winter Ale to keep the heat up the old-fashioned way, the crowd gathered into a cavernous back room for openers Wakey!Wakey! and Titus Andronicus. Wakey!Wakey!, the new brainchild of singer-songwriter, Michael Grubbs, hit a collective nerve with his folk-pop meditations on being “Twenty-Two” in “Brooklyn,” and sleeping all day (“Light Outside”). Unfortunately, the intricate string arrangements on “War Sweater” were lost beyond the first few rows, but Grubbs, who plays the character “Grubbs” on One Tree Hill (that show is about as old as the typewriters) did his best to compensate with some soul-baring “MakeDamnSure” crooning and Fray-flavored piano melodies. 


Next up was Titus Andronicus. The best thing about hearing these thrash nerds live, is that they play every show like it’s a school night in the loudest basement on the block. They sputtered and spat through their set, playing mostly from their impressive Civil War concept album The Monitor. On the punk rock battle hymn “Richard II”, Patrick Stickles sounded like Craig Finn trying to be Bruce Springsteen, and on “A More Perfect Union”, he sounded like Craig Finn trying to be Bruce Springsteen trying to be Johnny Rotten: “Because tramps like us, baby we were born to die”. Speaking of tramps, new guitarist Liam Betson set the pace high for the night, playing quick and dirty on Garden State manifestos like, “Union” and “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ”. Former Titus member, Deer Tick’s Ian O’Neill, joined them onstage for the last two songs. They ended with their signature Christmas carol: “So all I want for Christmas is no feelings, no feelings now and never again” (“No Future Part Three”). A school night in Mahwah? For sure. 


The floor was already littered with red plastic solo cups, a fitting tribute to the killer party gods. The Hold Steady blasted into a cross fire “Hurricane J” and didn’t stop for air. The two-hour set felt like a time crunch and Craig Finn, our effusive, designated shriver, knew it. His garrulous, gin-soaked lyrics never once digressed into stage banter (save for a shout-out to the hardcore Minneapolis contingent.) It is pretty damn impressive that in such a short band-span, The Hold Steady’s biggest “rock problem” is having too many hits to play in even the massive-est of nights.


Keeping with the yuletide spirit, the set was a sing-along-heavy career sampler, with songs like “Sequestered in Memphis”, “The Swish”, “You Can Make Him Like You”, and “How A Resurrection Really Feels”. In truth, they could have played anything and the little hoodrat crowd still would have gone bananas. If moshing to piano lines, daddy issues and fortified wine isn’t a high form of devotion, I don’t know what is.


Part of the reason it is so fun to see these guys live is because they all look like they belong to completely different bands. They are a Brooklyn-boy version of the Spice Girls: there is the aging English grad student (singer), the indifferent Soundgarden fan (guitarist), the “Glory Days” video enthusiast (bassist), the stoic hairball (rhythm guitarist) and the smiley drummer (drummer). Five ordinary dudes that just happen to be onstage, at the same time, playing glorious, highly structured classic rock together.


On “Stevie Nix” and “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” Finn’s charmingly scruffy voice matched his wayward storytelling. Lead guitarist, Tad Kubler, was sweating chords. On “Constructive Summer” and others, it he doubled his note-per-minute quota, facing off with guitarist, Steve Selvidge, like they were in a battle of the bands, within the same band.


Kubler lived out his Richie Sambora fantasy, breaking out a hot red double-necked guitar for a somber “Lord, I’m Discouraged”. It was a first class Wayne’s World moment, but that was also the point. Hold Steady songs are all about reveling in and revealing one’s own uber-fan soul. The songs are long, busy, and shameless, like Rush message boards. Nuanced layers of euphoric, major key instrumentation and big “whoa-oh-oh” choruses are like philosophical counterpoints to Finn’s gritty vocal timbre, telling stories about people without stories.


This is exemplified on “Stuck Between Stations”, which they played as the faux-closer. “We drink, we dry up, then we crumble to dust,” Finn sang, atop rousing rockabilly guitars and chirping keyboards. In the song, our protagonist opines about his bad girlfriend in classic white boy pain: quoting Yeats, channeling Kerouac, idolizing Bowie, and sourly contemplating the radio, which, for my money, was probably stuck between two stations playing “Love is a Battlefield”.


Two tales featuring the “Holly-lujah” character bookended the night (Banging Camp at the beginning, “How a Resurrection Really Feels” at the end). “Resurrection” was the first encore, and could have ended the show. They played a lilting, bare-bones cover of the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight”, followed by a new year’s resolution: “Stay Positive”. Titus Andronicus’s Patrick Stickles joined in at the end. Everyone on the stage and off was mouthing, clapping, and singing along, like a beer-addled Peanuts’ Christmas Special. If this Brooklyn show was any indication of how the world will end in 2012, bring on the year of the hoodrat.

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