Now 10-plus years and six albums deep into their career as group, the Hold Steady are still a vital rock 'n' roll force, albeit one that's starting to contemplate its own legacy. In their motherland of Minnesota, Craig Finn and company will probably be remembered as one of the greatest local bands that's not actually a local band. While their strident return to form on the new LP Teeth Dreams certainly contains a few more lyrical references to the band's adoptive home of New York City, Finn's songwriting talents seem inexorably tied to the Twin Cities, where he spent most of his youth.
As a result, the Hold Steady's yearly summer concert here seems almost more like a vacation than a normal leg of a professional tour. The guys who are from here visit family, maybe go see a baseball game, and then get up onstage and rock out for a crowd full of old friends. In some shows past, it's seemed like that familiarity let the group lower the bar for entertainment, but that was emphatically not the case Saturday night. Credit the new record, new member, or new setting (in a zoo), but the Hold Steady sounded re-energized.
Few cults of local fandom are quite as strong as the one that surrounds this band, so certain traditions must be observed when sequencing a set. "Positive Jam," the first track from the band's self-titled debut album, is the customary opener. With the added guitar-slinging talents of newly official guitarist Steve Selvidge, the song took on a bit of back-and-forth repartee between the new guy and lead ax-man Tad Kubler. Pausing between that intro and the set proper, Finn cracked wise about his local ties. "Am I old if this is still the 'New Zoo' to me?" The frontman asked, before dedicating the next song to his three-year-old niece, in attendance, with a wink. The group were already off to a great start, feeding off the appreciative, sold-out amphitheater to kick out new single "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You."
From there, we were off to the races. Throwback songs like "The Swish," with its massive, scuzzy riff butted against big hits like "Sequestered in Memphis" and "Rock 'n' Roll Problems" in an unending assault of guitar badassery. While erstwhile keyboardist Franz Nicolay is occasionally missed on material from Boys and Girls in America, Selvidge brings a toughness to the band that was sorely missing before his entrance. He makes a great swashbuckling foil for Kubler; the two trade licks with knowing glances and looks of disbelief, even engaging in some Thin Lizzy-esque guitarmony and posturing during the breakdown of "Problems." While Selvidge had been a hired gun in the band for years, with the release of Teeth Dreams he's stepped up to being 100 percent official, goofing around with bassist Galen Polivka and providing strong vocal harmonies.
After a shaggy but loveable version of the deep cut "Magazines," Finn paused again to show his roots and well-known love for baseball. "I got to watch the Twins play the Yankees at Target Field this afternoon," the singer said, "We beat 'em two to one, but we didn't just beat 'em, we outclassed 'em." He continued, "Alas, we might still be in a rebuilding era, but fuck it. Let's rebuild, let's build something this summer." Seconds later, the band crashed into one of the anthemic "Constructive Summer," which sounded huge through the amphitheater's giant speakers. While the song's brilliant lyrical tribute to Joe Strummer was received with cheers by the faithful, Craig made a bit of caveat after the song. "I say, 'Joe Strummer might have been our only decent teacher,' but my high school math teacher is in the crowd today. He's a great teacher too," Finn joked, "I tend to exaggerate."
A few songs later, the band did three songs in a row from their new album, starting with the cryptic "The Only Thing" and ending with the contemplative midtempo cut "The Ambassador." Sandwiched between was the hit single "Spinners," sounding festival-circuit ready with its big, catchy hooks and confident lyrical message. Finn explained that the song was, in part, about the growing alienation from unifying experiences like rock shows that technology is causing, but like all great Hold Steady songs, that headiness is an optional addition to the party-ready basic interpretation. [page] While "Chips Ahoy" may be a paranoid rumination on drug-fueled clairvoyance, you can also just sing along to the whoa-oh vocal hook without a care in the world. Ditto with "Southtown Girls," which has become an enduring lighter-raiser for the group, especially during their Twin Cities gig. While the lyrics paint a somewhat trapped, ambivalent portrait of the titular characters, the audience joined Craig with heartfelt sincerity to sing the acapella intro. Hell, the Hold Steady's biggest hit and fan favorite, "Yr Little Hoodrat Friend" is about infidelity, drug addiction, and self-abuse, but you'd never know from the enthusiastic reception and carefree delivery.
For the encore, the band played a seldom-performed deep cut from Boys and Girls, the nominally acoustic ballad "Citrus," which received an electrified interpretation and even a plucky, folksy drum part from Bobby Drake at the end. The tender, minimal song was originally conceived as a lullaby for Kubler's daughter, and really made a nice treat to witness in concert. Crowd pleasers "Hornets! Hornets!" and the always fun "Massive Nights" followed quickly, with Finn pinballing around the stage and riling up the audience with off-mic screams of encouragement.
As is traditional, the set ended with another song from deep in the band's past, the wistful "Killer Parties," which always closes with a breakdown, in which Finn takes one last chance to spin out a story or pontificate about the significance of the show. Saturday night, he almost seemed to be beyond words, as much as Craig Finn can be, anyway. "I only have two things to say," Finn explained, "One is 'Holy shit, we're gonna play with the Replacements.'" The other was the traditional line he uses to close the set, now repeated enough to where the diehards in the crowd can actually say it with him. "There's so much joy in what we do here," are the words that Finn and t he Hold Steady have been closing shows with around the world for the past 10 years. But somehow, when they say it here, you get the sense they truly mean those words.
Set List: Positive Jam Stuck Between Stations I Hope this Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You The Swish Sequestered in Memphis You Can Make Him Like You Rock 'n' Roll Problems Magazines Constructive Summer Sweet Part of the City The Only Thing Spinners The Ambassador The Weekenders Chips Ahoy Southtown Girls Yr Little Hoodrat Friend --Encore-- Citrus Hornets! Hornets! Massive Nights Slapped Actress Killer Parties
The Opener: Cheap Girls are definitely not a known quantity to the Zoo crowd, but the three-piece from Lansing, Michigan, has a lot of qualities that folks who dig THS will recognize and enjoy -- in no small part because bassist and songwriter Ian Graham is heavily inspired by the headlining act. Their sound recalls more '80s and '90s college rock than the '70s material Hold Steady is fond of, but Cheap Girls' muscular playing and big, melodic guitar riffs proved very winning, even on the socks-and-sandals set. With just enough punk aggressiveness to give their perfectly constructed pop songs a satisfying edge, Cheap Girls strike a great balance, especially on material from their new album like "Pure Hate" and "Man in Question," which Finn recorded guest vocals for. While the band seemed a little uncomfortable playing against a man-made cliff-face backdrop, they soldiered through the awkwardness of the Zoo's setting to deliver a tight, well-sequenced set.
Critic's Bias: You know how I mentioned the Hold Steady has a cultish following? I'm a card-carrying cult member, and have been since their debut.
Random Notebook Dump: I was worried that the standing water directly behind the stage would make for a mosquito infestation. Luckily, those were minimal, but the bright stage lights attracted an army of moths and gnats that swarmed around the band during their final songs. Way to be troopers, fellas!
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