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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011

The Hold Steady

Aug. 24, 2011 @ Turner Hall Ballroom

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The Hold Steady's first and so far only album since keyboardist Franz Nicolay departed the band has been 2010's Heaven Is Whenever. That record strays from the anthemic enthusiasm of previous efforts, and consequently has been viewed as a letdown by most fans. Many point the blame at discarding Nicolay's signature sound. Last night at Turner Hall Ballroom, The Hold Steady went a step further and scrapped the keyboard entirely from its live set. The result, however, was not a disappointment. While a few songs did suffer from the missing accompaniment, the deafening, crunchy guitars more than adequately filled the void. Aided by Craig Finn's relentless joviality, these songs soared higher and sounded more aggressive than ever before.

"A funny thing happened to me the other day," Finn remarked an hour into the set. "I turned 40." Nothing has really changed, though. Finn is still the same amicable frontman, strutting and shrugging around the stage, pointing at seemingly everyone in the crowd. Even though he's been doing the same shtick at every gig, his conviction did not come off as fictitious. However, a more reserved Finn could be refreshing, as well. On back-to-back licks "You Can Make Him Like You" and "Stuck Between Stations," Finn let each melody's sheer enthusiasm speak for itself.

This was The Hold Steady's first show since early April—a relatively long break since the band is routinely on tour—but there weren't any visible signs of rustiness. The group charged through their catalog with ease, spending much of the time between their three middle records, Separation Sunday, Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive. They traded lush instrumentation for a blunt-force attack of guitars. When it drowned out Finn's voice—this happened often—one could always rely on his hand and body gestures to keep conveying the words.

With his thick, black-framed glasses and literary, mythological lyrics, Finn has always seemed too nerdy to be the frontman of a classic-rock-mining band. His band mates—drummer Bobby Drake sported long hair with a blue bandana and lead guitarist Tad Kubler wore aviator sunglasses—looked like they were borrowed from Aerosmith, while Finn could actually be a lost member of They Might Be Giants. But that's always been the allure of the Hold Steady. Set closer "Stay Positive" perhaps summed up the sentiment the best: As he belted out the chorus, Finn fell to his knees at the cusp of the audience and passed around the microphone. It was immediately obvious he felt as comfortable out there as he did on the stage.

Photo by CJ Foeckler
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