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Friday, July 4, 2014

The Hold Steady @ U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, Summerfest

July 3, 2014

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The Hold Steady have spent much of their career described as the America’s best bar band, and while this description may give you some associative insight into how they sound, it doesn't do justice to their live presence. Six albums in, they’re more than some whiskey soaked background noise; they’re a rock band with a commanding presence. Lead singer Craig Finn took the stage at Summerfest’s U.S. Cellular Connection Stage with smile on his face as The Hold Steady launched into “A Positive Jam,” the first track from their first album Almost Killed Me. Perhaps they’re becoming nostalgic—but the setlist featured something from all six of their studio albums, and though some of these songs have doubtlessly been part of their live show for a significant portion of the band’s career, at 10 years old, The Hold Steady still play each song with conviction, intensity and true joy.

This conviction also gives them a knack for transcending their surroundings. Summerfest shows can be distracting
—whether it’s the sound of another band bleeding into the stage area or noisy, probably-drunk foot traffic, it isn’t always easy to command attention at a large festival. But this proved to be a non-issue for The Hold Steady, due in part to an audience that was plainly dedicated to the band, and to Finn and company’s earnest and joyful stage presence. Finn sings as though he’s addressing the crowd—and he does it with an infectious smile on his face. His enthusiasm was contagious, and in every direction you looked, someone in the crowd was singing along to songs like “Stuck Between Stations,” “Sequestered in Memphis,” and the near-perfect “Chips Ahoy!”

Though their new album Teeth Dreams came out just this year, the setlist was well-balanced, and, if any album received more attention, it was 2006’s Boys and Girls In America. This seemed to be a crowd favorite, and songs like “You Can Make Him Like You” and “Massive Nights” quickly turned into sing-alongs. Lyrically, Finn is a writer who favors narratives of lost Midwestern kids and half-adults, and stories of people who never grew up or didn’t grow up quite right. But in their lyrics as much as in their live presence, there is an optimism and exuberance that invites singing along with a full heart. Closing with “Stay Positive” and “Slapped Actress,” The Hold Steady left Summerfest on a note of not just positivity, but hope.