Report: Hold Steady Live in Northampton

 

July 18
at the Iron Horse in Northampton,
Mass., and it was a beefy mix of heat, crowd, and decibels. Opening act: Mount Carmel.

 

Text & Photos by Jennifer Kelly

The last time I saw the Hold Steady, they were holding down
the big room at Pearl Street, a venue maybe three or four times the size of the
Iron Horse. It looks, tonight, as if they’ve brought all the same fans and
crammed them into the smaller space. There are people in the balconies, people
on the stairs, people packed shoulder to shoulder on the floor all the way back
to the soundboard. I’ve never seen this many people at the Iron Horse at one
time.  Moreover, since the Hold Steady
seems to attract a disproportionate number of big beefy men, it’s extra crowded.
 It’s also hot.

 

But after a definite quiet period – during which Hold Steady
mainstay Craig Finn went off and recorded a solo album – it’s good to have them
back. “It’s good to see you’re back in a bar band, baby,” goes a line from “Bar
Fruit Blues,” an Almost Killed Me vintage song  sadly lacking this evening,
“It’s good to see you back in the bar.” But it is, indeed, good to see them
back.  

 

 

 

 

Mount Carmel, a sludgy, blues-y trio modeled on 1960s icons
like Cream, the Yardbirds etc., starts things off, the brothers Matthew and Pat
Reed on guitar and bass respectively, Kevin Shubak half hidden behind a
towering, cymbal-heavy kit of drums. They are engaged, when I arrive, in a slow
12/8 blues shuffle,  the sheer heaviness
of the guitar onslaught balanced, somewhat, by the soft, well-worn, fluttery
tenor that Matthew Reed lays over it. He sounds a lot like Jack Bruce, oddly
personal, oddly vulnerable above a ponderous, amp-fuzzed roar.

 

Mount Carmel is from Columbus, Ohio, one of the epicenters
of lo-fi, and managed through a connection with Mike Rep to gain the attention
of Philadelphia’s Siltbreeze label (another linchpin in the lo-fi scene), and
yet there is nothing especially fuzzy or indie about their sound. They sound,
instead, like one of the big blues-rock bands from the 1980s – Humble Pie,
maybe, if not Cream – and are fond of the big, shreddy guitar solo in a very
unpunk way. They play “Rooftop” off their Siltbreeze debut Real Women, a swaggery, riff-driven bit of blues swagger, that cuts
to almost nothing, just the chink of high hat going zzt, zzt, zzt, zzt, and
then they all come in on the dime with a 1970s arena-sized guitar riff. “ZZ
Breakers,” next, is dirtier, grittier, ballsier, bisected with a harrowing
guitar solo and softened, just a little, by Reed’s lost, octave-jumping croon
of “please, please, please…don’t bring your troubles to me.” They close out their
set with a blistering, hard-kicking “Livin’ Like I Wanna,” with its
blast-furnish blares of guitar and bass and drum all together, riffs that smash
into walls, do the dead stop, step back a pace and run right into them again. It’s
a pretty strong set, not that different from the territory that Howling Rain
works, but very raw.

 

***

 

It takes the Hold Steady a while to set up, the guitar tech
tuning each of seven guitars, plugging in gear, taping set lists to flat
surfaces. There are some cool guitars – a white Strat with a cartoon Teddy Bear
painted on it for Finn, a small, graceful Les Paul Gibson for new guitarist
Steven Selfridge, a red one for Tad Kubler. It’s not Sonic Youth’s rack of
instruments, but still definitely bigger than it used to be. And then the band
finally arrives – Selfridge (who joined after Franz Nicolay left) and Galen
Polvika on the left, drummer Bobby Drake in back, Finn up front and Kubler way
off to the right and in back.

 

They start at what I think of as the very beginning, the uneasy
strum and surreal poetry of “Positive Jam,” which set off the whole enterprise,
back in the early 00-days when you still had to say “They used to be in Lifter
Puller,” when talking about The Hold Steady. It’s a brilliant introduction to
the band’s combination of intricate lyrical bravado and the biggest classic
rock riffs you ever heard, and the crowd goes into a frenzy when the words stop
and we all wait for the giant, club-shaking power chord that breaks the song in
half. Then everyone’s bouncing up and down and mouthing the words, and the
first three rows in front have started that bizarre mirroring phenomenon where
they imitate every gesture that Finn throws at them (mostly pointing).  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The energy stays high with the four-on-floor battering of “Cattle
and the Creeping Things” off of the Hold Steady’s second album Separation Sunday, a stomping,
celebratory version of “Sequestered in Memphis” (Finn making air quotes around
the phrase “I went there on business”) and a floor-shaking chords and classic
rock flourishes (I’m hearing Thin Lizzy here and elsewhere) of early hit “The
Swish.” The thing that’s cool and sort of inexplicable about the Hold Steady is
the way they balance nerdiness and bravado. Finn looks like the kind of guy who
would get beat up by the big jocks crowding towards the front, yet he’s playing
them like a puppeteer. “I know you’re pretty pissed, but I hope you’ll still
let me kiss you,” he sings, a line from “Magazines,” and you totally believe
the insecurity, even blown up as it is in the grandest kind of rock excess.

 

The Hold Steady will be recording album number six in September, so they have some new song to try out. The
first is “Look Alive,” about, as Finn explains, the vagrants of his native Minneapolis’ Lake Street, who dress,
for whatever reason, as cowboys. The song is built on a hard-edged,
funk-into-hard-rock riff that reminds me, vaguely of “Walk This Way.” It’s
socially conscious, aware of income inequality and other forms of unfairness,
but not in any life-affirming “Blowin’ in the Wind” kind of way. “Keep us
floating above/the dick who makes us nervous,” says Finn in a break between
guitar riffs, and he’s got white, middle class guilt in two lines. Later on,
the Finn introduces “Teeth Dreams,” with a rambling explication of dreams about
teeth falling out (it has to do with money anxiety) and a caution that, “But
this is about other people’s teeth.” The song, like “Look Alive” seems harder
and rougher than the (to me disappointing) last album, a good sign maybe that
the band is back on track.

 

Then it’s back to older songs – “The Sweet Part of the
City,” “Constructive Summer,” “Chips Ahoy” and “You Can Make Him Like You” –
and to finish the first set, a long, wonderful version of “Your Little Hoodrat
Friend,” which Finn splices in half with instrumental vamp and a little talk
about how he was born in Northampton
and still had family there.   And then
it’s one more rough-housing run through of “hood rat” and the main set ends.

 

The encore is three songs, “Massive Nights”, “Stay
Positive,” and “Slapped Actress.” These latter two have massed, wordless
vocals, which, by this time, the audience is singing louder than the band in
the kind of ecstatic, group mind-meld that ought to happen at shows more often,
but rarely does. It is, indeed, one thing to start out with a positive jam,
another thing to see it on through. The Hold Steady is at the top of its game
live – can’t wait to see how that translates to the next record.

 

 

 

 

 

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