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We saw all 3 Hold Steady shows in Minneapolis this weekend

Mike Madison

Mike Madison

It was a classically Minnesotan mid-October weekend.

The Vikings won in spite of some first-half struggles, the Timberwolves were in a state of dysfunction just days before the season began, and the metro area woke up to an unexpected sheet of snow on the ground Sunday morning. To top it all off, Twin Cities poet laureates the Hold Steady were back in town for three shows—their first concerts here in four years.

Ever since they finished touring behind 2014’s Teeth Dreams, the Brooklyn sextet with deep local ties has regrouped several times per year to stage multi-night blowouts in their hottest markets. New York City will get its third Hold Steady four-night stand in as many years this December, while Chicago and Toronto have each hosted a couple of Unified Scene celebrations, too. Somehow, frontman/Edina native Craig Finn and his band hadn’t played in Minnesota since opening for the Replacements in St. Paul in 2014.

That was rectified with the Hold Steady’s huge homecoming gig at Surly Brewing Company’s SurlyFest Saturday night, when fans from as far afield as Leeds and Fargo braved temperatures in the low 40s and descended upon the Minneapolis brewery’s annual fall gathering. Those who hadn’t planned on unpacking their winter wardrobe just yet were treated to two indoor shows on Sunday at Minneapolis’ 7th St. Entry, the group’s first-ever in the historic small room.

To mark the occasion, Saturday was officially declared The Hold Steady Day in Minneapolis by Mayor Jacob Frey and Council Member Steve Fletcher. After three shows in 24 hours, I’m wishing that every day could be Hold Steady Day.

SurlyFest

The Hold Steady topped a bill of diverse local favorites at SurlyFest, reminiscent of when they headlined a Minnesota-heavy Rock the Garden lineup in 2012. Buzzy indie group Bad Bad Hats, hip-hop trio Mixed Blood Majority, funky youngsters Static Panic, and singer-songwriter Rachel Kurtz kept the multi-layered, music-loving throng warm before the men of the hour cranked the heat up to 11.

But before the 24-song, 105-minute set began, we got a spirited reading of the city’s proclamation honoring the band. (Sample quote: “Whereas, their lyrical insights presciently identified some of the issues our city wrestles with today; the clear-headed analysis that City Center used to be the center of our scene, and that City Center is over incisively summarized one of the pressing challenges of street-level retail in our city today”—possibly the apex of civic document language.)

Finn and company kicked things off with a bang, busting into their greatest ode to Minneapolis, Boys and Girls in America’s “Stuck Between Stations.” Its romanticized lyrics about “Twin Cities kisses,” the Golden Gophers, and the Washington Avenue bridge had the local faithful bouncing and fist-pumping from the outset. What better way to warm up than being held in Finn’s steady hands?

The Hold Steady’s songs often focus on the 48-year-old lyricist’s rotating cast of fictional (yet, somewhere in the middle of Minneapolis, likely 100 percent real) teenage and twentysomething hoodrats and misfits. Chapters in the stories of Gideon, Sapphire, Charlemagne and Holly were all told Saturday night, the latter being the focus of the IDS Center-immortalizing “Party Pit” (also from Boys and Girls), in which the author actually interacts with his character.

It was the Upper Midwest anthems from 2006’s Boys and Girls that went over best at this big gig. The gorgeous piano line in “First Night” by the recently returned Franz Nicolay (in his first show here with the band since 2009) gave way to a climactic crowd sing-along, while “Southtown Girls” shouted out Lyndale, Nicollet, Penn, and Lowry, in addition to Southtown Center’s (defunct) Rainbow Foods and (thriving) Party City.

That’s not to say that the other selections didn’t get the crowd moving. “Sequestered in Memphis,” from 2008’s Stay Positive, took things even further south than Bloomington, while Separation Sunday’s “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Hornets! Hornets!” (from 2005) had the audience singing back to Finn about Penetration Park (as he’s affectionately dubbed Loring Park) and driving the wrong way down Highway 169, respectively. The confetti-fueled “Killer Parties,” from 2004 debut Almost Killed Me, was a fitting finale: While it would take far more than a crisp autumn day to take down a Minnesotan, SurlyFest was a deathly good gathering.

7th St. Entry (early show)

Though the Hold Steady had put on a concert for the ages the night before, that still wasn’t the band at the height of their powers. Hailed by critics as “the best bar band in America” for a reason, the Hold Steady were made for tiny venues like the Entry—and yet, the band never played that storied club till yesterday. Squeezed onto the oddly shaped stage and almost at eye line with the 250 people in attendance at each show, Finn, Nicolay, bassist Galen Polivka, drummer Bobby Drake, and guitarists Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge couldn’t have looked more at home on Sunday.

Surely recognizing the crossover between the Entry crowds and those in the audience Saturday night, the band switched up the setlist considerably for each of the Sunday gigs, especially this 5 p.m. matinee. Ten of the early show’s 23 songs hadn’t been aired at Surly, including a handful of songs not found on any of the Hold Steady’s six full-length records.

Almost Killed Me opener “Positive Jam” (also the namesake of a delicious drink at the adjacent Depot restaurant) served as a mission statement for the evening, just as it introduced listeners to Finn’s lyrical universe 14 years ago. That same album’s beer-soaked, “Born to Run”-referencing “Barfruit Blues” was next, with 2008 B-side “Ask Her for Adderall” following suit.

Though the group hasn’t released a new LP since Teeth Dreams, they’ve been putting out a new double-sided single every few months since last December. That’s eight new songs so far, three of which were played at the all-ages matinee. On “Entitlement Crew” Finn sang about Tecate and tequila while drinking a can of the former; “T-Shirt Tux” and “Confusion in the Marketplace” highlighted why it’s so great to have Nicolay back in the fold. (Keys were completely absent from the Hold Steady’s work in the six years he was gone.)

Several Separation Sunday songs that didn’t make an appearance Saturday were an appropriate addition on this day of rest. The nearby Penetration Park popped up again in “Banging Camp,” while Kubler’s solo at the end of “Cattle and the Creeping Things” was even hotter than it is on record. During the breakdown of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” Finn noted to his out-of-town fans that they would “never be closer to the heart of this song,” as they were just a block away from downtown’s City Center, “which still sucks.”

The former Lifter Puller frontman may have been singing about a struggling urban shopping mall just a short walk away, but Finn has sung about Minneapolis while in Minneapolis a hundred times. What made “Massive Nights” special at the early gig, possibly the first dry show in Hold Steady history, is that he could sing a line about “all-ages hardcore matinee shows” at an all-ages hardcore matinee show. The significance wasn’t lost on the artist or the audience, as the whole room shouted that line back to him, arms aloft.

“How a Resurrection Really Feels,” the Separation Sunday closer that sits at the heart of the Hold Steady narrative, was as satisfying a main set finale as anyone could’ve asked for. It showcased all of the things that the band does best—Polivka’s bouncy basslines, Nicolay’s sunny keys, Finn’s hard-luck-but-optimistic lyrics, and an amount of crowd participation that makes you swing your arm around the random person standing next to you.

Click here to see a photo slideshow of the Hold Steady rocking Surly HQ

7th St. Entry (late show)

You know how when you hit a high note or nail a guitar solo in Guitar Hero, the crowd goes crazier than any real-life audience actually ever has? That was the scene for the opening trio of songs at the 9:30 p.m. show, when “Hornets! Hornets!,” “Constructive Summer” and “Hot Soft Light” packed a floor-shaking level of intensity into the Entry.

Fellow party-starters “The Swish” and “Magazines” were also dislodged early in the proceedings, while the Hold Steady played two more of their new singles later on. “The Stove & The Toaster” (making its live debut) and “Star 18” both recall the band’s mid-aughts output and fit in well with the rest of the setlist. In fact, the Mick Jagger shoutout in “Star 18” paired well with the line about opening for the Rolling Stones (as our hometown heroes did in Ireland) in “Ask Her for Adderall.” And “The Sweet Part of the City,” which is from 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever and recalls the Stones’ Beggars Banquet, also made its only appearance of the weekend at the late show.

Finn’s undying onstage enthusiasm is one of the things that makes the Hold Steady one of the best live bands in the world. When he’s not using his hands to act out his words or laughing at a clever turn of phrase that he’s particularly proud of, he’s using up valuable between-line breathing time to yell, off-mic, the lyrics he just sang back to the crowd. It’s a spectacle to see, and this was especially true at Sunday’s late show.

The band snuck a lively “Stuck Between Stations” between “Chips Ahoy!” and “The Weekenders,” a mini-suite of two tunes concerning a girl who can predict the outcomes of horse races. The meta-anthem “Slapped Actress” (“We’re the projectors, we’re hosting a screening”) closed out the main set in epic and energetic fashion, putting the taller members of the crowd in danger of hitting their heads on the ceiling while pogoing up and down in unison.

The three-song encore that punctuated this three-gig weekend was about as perfect as you could ask for. “First Night” built from its plaintive first-half to a celebratory climax, while “Stay Positive” featured band merch guy Mosh Pit Josh scream-rapping the song’s bridge as Finn mouthed the words and got even more up close and personal with the front rows. As it did Saturday, “Killer Parties” brought one final moment of life to a classic bash.

Hold Steady Day is a monthly thing, right?

Critic’s bias: The Hold Steady trails only R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen in my list of favorite all-time acts. I didn’t grow up in Minnesota, and Finn’s lyrics give me more of a sense of this place than pretty much anything else. I couldn’t be more proud that this band is essentially from here.

Overseen in the crowd: A guy getting escorted from the early show for having a dangerous combination of imbalance and lack of spacial awareness; Har Mar Superstar at the late show.

Setlists

SurlyFest

Stuck Between Stations

The Swish

Sequestered in Memphis

Party Pit

Stevie Nix

Multitude of Casualties

Magazines

On with the Business

Yeah Sapphire

You Can Make Him Like You

First Night

Constructive Summer

Hot Soft Light

The Weekenders

Entitlement Crew

Chips Ahoy!

Your Little Hoodrat Friend

Massive Nights

Southtown Girls

Slapped Actress

Hornets! Hornets!

Hurricane J

Stay Positive

Killer Parties

 

7th St. Entry (early show)

Positive Jam

Barfruit Blues

Ask Her for Adderall

Sequestered in Memphis

Entitlement Crew

Chips Ahoy!

T-Shirt Tux

You Can Make Him Like You

Banging Camp

Cattle and the Creeping Things

Constructive Summer

Hot Soft Light

Citrus

Stuck Between Stations

Confusion in the Marketplace

The Weekenders

Massive Nights

Your Little Hoodrat Friend

Stay Positive

How a Resurrection Really Feels

Certain Songs

Party Pit

Southtown Girls

 

7th St. Entry (late show)

Hornets! Hornets!

Constructive Summer

Hot Soft Light

Entitlement Crew

The Swish

Party Pit

Magazines

Star 18

You Can Make Him Like You

Ask Her for Adderall

The Sweet Part of the City

Yeah Sapphire

The Stove & The Toaster

Sequestered in Memphis

The Weekenders

Stuck Between Stations

Chips Ahoy!

Your Little Hoodrat Friend

Massive Nights

Slapped Actress

First Night

Stay Positive

Killer Parties