Friday, November 21, 2008

Review: Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers @ First Avenue

Download: Drive-By Truckers - "Zip City"
Download: Drive-By Truckers - "World of Hurt"
Download: Drive-By Truckers - "Loaded Gun In The Closet"
Download: The Hold Steady - "Chips Ahoy"
Download: The Hold Steady - "The Swish"

It's been a rough year for Minneapolis. In September, we had the Republican National Convention, which spurred a massive infringement on civil rights across Twin Cities. Tempering a hopeful presidential election, Michele Bachmann was elected a United States Representative again – an ugly reminder of the hatred blossoming in our own backyards. People are feeling the economic crunch here, just as they are anywhere else.

And that's why it felt so good to see the Hold Steady play the other night. America's best bar band returned to America's best rock venue (First Avenue, in case you live under a rock) midway through their "Rock and Roll Means Well" tour with Drive-By Truckers for two performances Saturday and Sunday night. In a set full of jubilation at the saving power of rock and roll, the Hold Steady left me feeling completely refreshed.

I just want to say a few words about Drive-By Truckers. They were phenomenal. Even in the middle of the tour, they performed with explosive energy and teeth-gritting passion. But the Hold Steady is the home team, and the band I'm more familiar with, so I'll be focusing on them.

The Hold Steady is a band that's easy for Minneapolitans to care about. Their lyrics are peppered with references to familiar landmarks and people. Even if they're based out of Brooklyn, it always feels like we own a piece of them.

And when you see them live, it's abundantly obvious that they care about us, too. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Craig Finn spends the show pushing out towards the audience, reaching and screaming at fans. He bounces like an excited four-year-old and flails around, dancing like a punk teen dropped into the middle of a French house club. His sheer and undeniable ecstasy at being on stage is contagious – even the 30 something hipsters in the audience were doing the white guy wiggle.

The band mostly played from their latest, Stay Positive. I have really mixed feelings on the album. On the one hand, I really appreciate the lyrical content. It gets down into the gritty reality of college towns, addiction and, ultimately, hope.

Unfortunately the album was sonically stagnant. After 2006's remarkably perfect release, Boys and Girls in America, Stay Positive doesn't really seem to tread new ground. It's owes a little more to the Ramones than Springsteen, but it isn't a dramatic or terribly interesting shift.

Luckily, the songs translate really well live. The Hold Steady has always been a well put-together band live, delivering their albums with a sheen of excitement. The rapid staccato guitars of Stay Positive have a really heavily rhythmic sense to them. They batter the audience, compelling everyone to make awkward, jerky attempts at dance.

They, of course, hit all the old highlights, too. They opened up with "Positive Jam," the first track off their debut, Almost Killed Me. It makes a wonderful starting place. It declares everything important about the Hold Steady. Over its three-minute span, "Positive Jam" declares the band's ethos, its meaningful separation from the legacy of Lifter Puller and establishes a context for the rest of the set.

Afterwards, the band launched into "Constructive Summer" and "Sequestered in Memphis," which hit with a transformative, triumphant energy that sustained through the rest of the set. The boys banged through the rest of the set, hitting the highs off of Stay Positive (the desperate, break-down love song "Yeah Sapphire" being one of my favorites from the evening) and a good volume of songs from Boys and Girls in America.

My only real complaint about the setlist was how far back in the set "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" was performed. I've been to four Hold Steady shows and the 30-second mark of "Hoodrat" is where the audience always goes ballistic. I can't help but feel like it should have been a little further forward in the interest of getting the audience in motion earlier.

One really cool thing the Hold Steady did during their set was a cover of the Minutemen's "History Lesson, Pt. 2" with lyrics subbed in to pay homage to Minneapolis music. Tipping their hats to the whole experience, in addition to specific acts, the song was a nice little touch for those of us who grew up in matinee concerts just like Finn did.

At the end of the show, three-fifths of the band popped back up on stage with the Drive-By Truckers to play a few last songs. Let's talk about iconic things for a minute. Everyone has a different image of rock and roll, but for me, that image is now Craig Finn. It's him on the edge of the stage, screaming "I'm not f---ing sorry," pulling the microphone from its stand with one hand, waving around a bottle of Jack Daniels with the other.

The two bands closed with "Rockin' In the Free World," a cover from Neil Young. A little cliché? Yeah. A lttle old? Yeah. Exactly the right note to close on? Hell yes. The Hold Steady and the Drive-By Truckers put on a rock show in the most ridiculous, spectacular sense of the phrase. Keep on rockin', indeed.

(April Wright)

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