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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.

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