The Hold Steady at First Avenue

The Hold Steady currently find themselves at an interesting crossroads – straddling the spoken word chorus-less rants of their formative days and a grander sing along friendly sound. Lesser bands might break under the strain of these growing pains but if one thing was made clear at their sold out First Avenue gig last night it’s that the Hold Steady are enjoying it all way too much to worry about such matters (leave that to stuffy critics like myself).

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Galen Polivka & Craig Finn – Steve Cohen

Taking the stage before an adoring “hometown” crowd to the opening strains of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” it was clear from the get go the Hold Steady crew had their eyes set on nothing less than ascending into the pantheon of true Twin Cities legends. Impressively, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis quintet made a strong case for their inclusion, powering through a lengthy 100 minute set that drew nearly equally from all of its four records while of course prominently featuring tunes from the just released Stay Positive. New rock anthems like “Sequestered in Memphis” and “Two Handed Handshake” held up well in the live setting although one couldn’t help but long for the horn sections that punctuated their album versions, having to be approximated instead by Franz Nicolay’s keyboard.

The Hold Steady perform “Sequestered in Memphis” on David Letterman

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Craig Finn – photo by Steve Cohen

Not that most attendees were looking at Nicolay too closely, as front man Craig Finn remained such an insanely peripatetic stage presence it was hard to pry your eyes from him. With Finn’s guitar serving more as prop than actual instrument, the man was able to keep his hands free for near constant wild gesticulation, while below the belt he spent most of the night doing variations on a ska skip. Finn’s manic mugging was alternately endearing and annoying, certain slower numbers almost felt hijacked of their impact by all the movement.

Similarly, Finn’s obvious adrenal rush at playing before so many friends and family occasionally manifested itself in a tendency to deliver his vocals in a breathless bark (although granted that’s the original form many of these songs vocals take in the first place!). That being said, a certain spine tingle – and accompanying crowd roar – couldn’t be ignored whenever Finn launched into yet another Twin Cities lyrical reference.

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Tad Kubler – photo by Steve Cohen

Ultimately, the band proved worthy of their current place in the national indie spotlight, putting on a highly engrossing show that balanced Finn’s go for broke enthusiasm with tight and polished playing from Nicolay and guitarist Tad Kubler (who showed he’s approaching true guitar god status by busting out a double headed ax on the epic ballad “Lord I’m Discouraged”). At the close of the night the love fest between these Minneapolis boys done good and the well lubricated crowd was peaking and Finn signed off on the mic with sentiments that perfectly captured the spirit of the whole evening (and arguably the Hold Steady’s entire career): “There’s so much joy in what we do. We enjoyed sharing that joy with you. We’re the Hold Steady from Minneapolis and we f—king love you.” Right back at ya.

Photos by Steve Cohen

All photos © Steve Cohen Photography

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