My Hold Steady fandom is belied by my record collection, since I only own their most recent two albums--the epic Boys and Girls in America, and their fine 2008 effort Stay Positive. I categorize them alongside Spoon and Andrew Bird in that what little of their catalog I own I enjoy immensely, yet I haven't managed to take get off my ass and buy up their other stuff. Soon enough! But that didn't stop me from snagging a few tickets for their Charleston show...it was worth the fifteen bucks and ten minute commute.
The Pour House on James Island (municipally part of Charleston) is, as a venue, friendlier to its audience than its acts. The floor stretches back a good fifty yards and you're never more than a few feet from the bar. The stage, however, isn't elevated more than a few feet and seems a bit tight, low and claustrophobic. Admittedly I've been on a run of seeing mega-acts (see Waits and Radiohead) who play venues with cavernous stages. But the Pour House is a true low-to-mid level rock venue. The acts they book usually have a pretty esoteric following, if anything more than local.
But as Pour House bookings go, The Hold Steady was a big get. I'd guess they're the kind of act that could have played a larger area venue, like the Music Farm. They might have opted for the intimacy the Pour House offers...they are, after all, a rocking bar band who made it big. A bar band savant, to be sure. While Craig Finn's lyrics do center heavily around partying, he injects a very relatable poignancy that defines his songwriting style. It's not pretentious, but it certainly isn't mindless.
Back to the gig: The sweaty crowd was excitable, seemed every person was jockeying for a spot closer to the action. I was three or four heads back, just to the right of center stage. The Love Ones opened, a quintet of spirited youngsters who wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Tony Hawk Pro Skating 3 soundtrack (the best game in the series by the way) and likely have a few Clash and Rancid tunes in the ol' iPod. A Superchunky kind of upbeat punk outfit, they aren't particularly my cup of tea but they certainly played their hearts out. Closed out with a cover (I couldn't put my finger on the name of the tune but I've definitely heard it somewhere) accompanied by Franz Nicolay and Tad Kubler from the headliners.
A brief intermission let us air out a bit before the Hold Steady took the stage and set into one of the most rocking sets I've seen in years. The immediately noticed that Craig Finn looks about 10 years younger in person than he does on film, although he is 37.
That said, he is the most engaging frontman I've ever seen live. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd done a bit of stage acting in his younger years, because the man can certainly convey emotion through pantomime and facial expressions. 'Passionate' would be an understated labeling of his delivery. I'd almost say 'dire' or 'evangelical'...the guy really wants you to hear what he has to say. He crams movement into his stage presence, with spastic little gyrations and arm flails between and during lines. I see a lot of a young Elvis Costello in Craig (a comparison only aided by the black rims for which they've both become known.)
The band is rounded out by 4 rabble-rousers: Drummer Bobby Drake; Accordionist, keyboardist, and acutely mustachioed ne'er-do-well Franz Nicolay; licksman (and Radiohead detractor) Tad Kubler; and jolly bassist Galen Polivka. The group is racous and noisy, all fine musicians who are just restrained enough to serve as a nice foil for Finn. I feel like the stage was a bit too small for the band, but they savored the intimacy that a hot, dark and sweaty rock show provides.
Again, I can only draw from the past two records worth of material (and of course "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" [which was on THPS 8 according to Wikipedia]), but luckily that's where the band focused. Highlights included newish single "Sequestered in Memphis," the fine album closer to Stay Positive, "Slapped Actress," and the Law and Order plot-worthy "One for the Cutters." Boys and Girls material included my personal favorite, "You Can Make Him Like You" as well as the standbys "Chips Ahoy," "Stuck Between the Stations," and the choppy "Party Pit." Sadly lacking were four I'd have loved to have heard: "First Night," "Citrus" (which I knew was a long shot,) "Chillout Tent" (ditto) and "Southtown Girls." But again, I can't speak for the two albums worth of material I wasn't familiar with.
It was a different kind of show than I'm used to, but certainly an experience well worth the change of pace. My ears rang for a day or two--ear plugs are a good thing, friends--and I didn't smell too nice when all was said and done. But hey, I'm sure that's a sign of a successful Hold Steady experience the way a sauce-stained shirt is the sign of good barbeque.