The Hold Steady + The Donkeys: 31 August 2011 - Carrboro, NC

Emily Tartanella

Lead singer Craig Finn dances like a 12-year-old who has forgotten his Ritalin.

The Donkeys

The Hold Steady + The Donkeys

City: Carrboro, NC
Venue: Cat's Cradle
Date: 2011-08-31

The Hold Steady area rock band. They are a bar band. They’ve got licks and riffs and complicated issues. Lead singer Craig Finn’s growling Midwestern croon could make sensible schoolmarms disrobe, and they are 100% irony-free.

There’s a much-noted tension in the band’s appeal -- the lure of the good life and the love of the holy road. Nothing rocks like a lapsed Catholic, evidently.But like any Catholic worth his salt, Finn appreciates a good glass of wine. His band celebrates the joyful side of spirits, ears still ringing from last night’s party, the lingering smell of smoke on your best pair of jeans. It’s so sincere and joyful it makes “TGIF” look like Joy Division.

Maybe that’s why we literate types can’t help describing the band in the language of religious revivals. The Hold Steady are the kind of band that turns a cavernous club into a traveling tent show. They take strung-out indie kids and make them speak in tongues. Tonight’s show at the Cat’s Cradle is a reminder of the band’s power to unify their scene. The audience is a curious mix of middle-aged men and misfit teenagers, Wednesday night pilgrims who’ve crossed the morning after off their lists for now.

Opening with the country-influenced “Sweet Part of the City,” the band goes on to play a 21-song set that lasts for nearly two hours and spans the entirety of their five-album career, sampling everything from the rough and unpolished Almost Killed Meto the melodic Heaven Is Whenever.

Craig Finn’s stage presence is a large part of the band’s appeal. And while he would seldom be called a man of few words, tonight he lets the songs do the talking. “This is a song about a guy, a girl, and a horse,” he says simply, before launching into a riotously received “Chips Ahoy". The vivid storyteller has ceded the floor to the hard-rocker, but judging by the amount of attendees mouthing the words, these songs need no introduction. The raucous “Constructive Summer”, gets giddy teenagers shouting “Get hammered!” on command, as Finn jitter-dances his way across the stage.

He’s the rare frontman who, on the face of things, seems utterly uncool. Allergic to irony, with a style somewhere between middle-aged accountant and IRS attorney, Finn dances like a 12-year-old who has forgotten his Ritalin, and sings like Paul Westerberg after a long weekend. But coolness can’t affect the genuine passion Finn brings in during their blistering version of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” or a crowd-pleasing run through “Magazines”.

While it’s not a one-man show, the charismatic Finn receives most of the attention. Hecrosses the stage and urges out chants, drawing on a variety of symbols and gestures that transform a fanbase into a secret society. But Finn wouldn’t manage without guitarist Tad Kubler, whose surfer-boy looks belie a gift for heavy riffs, and the rest of the five-piece band. The departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay has actually freed the band, whose increasing production values had hampered them on previous albums. Tonight, they simply feel like a rock band letting loose in the dark corners of the Cat’s Cradle, without a care or thought for tomorrow.

Though the band’s critical momentum might have stalled somewhat since the highly acclaimed Boys and Girls in Americaand its lackluster sequel, Stay Positive, no one’s told the fans that. Their set tonight plays heavily to fan favorite Separation Sunday, bringing in brilliant renditions of “Multitude of Casualties”, “Stevie Nix”, and the stunning “How a Resurrection Really Feels”. The Hold Steady have always been deeply connected to their fanbase, and every song gets the kind of reception Will & Kate would have to pay for. Even B-list numbers like “Citrus” and “Southtown Girls” clash their sweet melodies with exuberant fans.

By the end, Finn is sweat-stained and spacey, wearing a blissed-out grin on his face. But it’s no coincidence that the band’s encore features some of the band’s most ambivalent lyrics about the rock scene: “Stay Positive”, with its fear that “the scene’ll seem less sunny / It’ll probably get druggy and the kids’ll seem too skinny." Few bands make rock 'n' roll problems seem so damn anthemic.

Then again, maybe tonight’s closing number “Slapped Actress” is right. Maybe “some nights it’s just entertainment / and some other nights it’s work." Frankly, if we could all get a job that looked like this, it would be pretty easy to stay positive.






A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.