Live: The Hold Steady Pay Homage To Themselves and Their Heroes at the Music Hall of Williamsburg

This photo (by Rob Trucks) was actually not taken last night, though he was wearing the same shirt and everything.
This photo (by Rob Trucks) was actually not taken last night, though he was wearing the same shirt and everything.

The Hold Steady Music Hall of Williamsburg Sunday, January 30

Better Than: Watching the SAG Awards, whatever they are.

"It's Sunday night," Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn says, about seven songs in. "Hope you went to church today, because we're gonna get nasty tonight." Only one night a week you can use that one. And so it is Sunday night, our first glimpse in 2011 of a usually ubiquitous New York band, slumming it at the Music Hall of Williamsburg for two shows before jetting off to the UK and then Australia, finally setting back down here in April, where they'll play to two or three times as many people at Terminal 5. They are touring, I think, behind last year's Heaven Is Whenever, their fifth and most languorous record--not that you would know it from the set list, where "Rock Problems" and "Hurricane J" and "We Can Get Together" sound like "Stuck Between Stations" and "Southtown Girls" and pretty much every other song they play tonight, one long stretch of highly proficient and rousing bar rock, now keyboard-less but as expansive and overjoyed as ever.

If there's a theme here, beyond the usual showcase for Craig Finn's hilariously inarticulate onstage pantomimes of his hilariously articulate lyrics, his longtime bandmate Tad Kubler soloing furiously behind him, it's paying tribute--starting the year off with a nod to all the bands that inspired this one. Thus we get not just "Constructive Summer," with its toasts to "Lust For Life" and Joe Strummer ("Get 'em up! Get 'em up!" Finn chants for the latter), but also "Girls Like Status" (Mountain Goats, Dillinger Four), "Stay Positive" (Youth of the Today, 7 Seconds), and Finn's most recent act of homage, "We Can Get Together," which namechecks Heavenly, uh, Utopia, and, of course, Hüsker Dü. "Do you remember 'Makes No Sense At All'?" he asks.

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This is an interesting question. Seven years on, this band has more and more of a preservation society vibe, both resurrecting rituals long since vanished from venues like this one--Finn thrusting his arm into the crowd for help on the gang vocals of "Stay Positive," say--and providing a kind of living liner notes for the kids and the bros in backwards baseball caps alike, helping them pick up on what they missed by virtue of being born too late to get into this stuff the first time around.

And so it is with some amusement that I watch--after a blistering encore that begins with "Hornets! Hornets!," detours through a comically long-lasting three-man guitar-circle solo on "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," and finishes with a drawn-out, high-powered "How A Resurrection Really Feels"--a young-looking guy approach an incognito Patrick Stickles (whose own band, Titus Andronicus, is even now venerating the legacy of the still-living Hold Steady to anyone who will listen), and ask him when his next album's coming out. Looking at the stage, recently vacated by Finn and the rest of his still very alive band, Stickles blinks and says: "Probably not for while."

Critical Bias: I will never not be an ex-hardcore kid, just like Craig Finn.

Overheard: [Upon watching one audience member discipline another for excessive celebration:] "Have you ever even been to a Hold Steady show before?" "Yes. I've been to 14 Hold Steady shows."

Random Notebook Dump: Got a kick out of watching Craig Finn laugh at and applaud his own great lyric, "She said the theme of this party's the industrial age/And you came in dressed like a trainwreck."

Set List: Stuck Between Stations Hurricane J Navy Sheets Banging Camp Constructive Summer Hot Soft Light You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came To The Dance With) The Sweet Part of the City You Can Make Him Like You Rock Problems Stevie Nix A Multitude of Casualties Chicago Seemed Pretty Tired Last Night Sequestered in Memphis We Can Get Together Southtown Girls The Weekenders Girls Like Status The Swish Chips Ahoy

Encore: Hornets! Hornets! Your Little Hoodrat Friend Stay Positive How A Resurrection Really Feels

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