Alternate-universe rock star Craig Finn
The Hold Steady + Blood on the Wall + Thunderbirds Are Now!
November 7, 2005
I said some nice things about Spoon yesterday, the way that band kicks out the immaculately-arranged power-pop with a real professional flair. I meant all of it; Spoon is a good band. I can like what they do and even sometimes love it. But it doesn’t move me or jolt me or toss me around. There’s no messy abandon or ugly splurge in what they do. This has been a subject of much debate lately, but I’ve always understood indie-rock to be a safe haven for a certain passionate amateurism, for bands who know the rules but just say fuck it. This is, I guess, a pretty conservative stance; it doesn’t allow a lot of room for people like Sufjan Stevens or Jens Lekman or whoever, people who are making great music independently but doing it with a flash and polish and elegant formalism. And so it’s almost impossible to talk about last night’s show at Webster Hall without lapsing into overused “purity of music” babble or talking shit on indie-rock dudes who make slick pop music (when I really, really like slick pop music), but here it is: last night’s show was the best indie-rock triple-bill of the year. The Hold Steady and Blood on the Wall and Thunderbirds Are Now! all do indie-rock the way I love to see it done: loose and noisy and fired-up and drunk and unprofessional.
Though maybe unprofessional isn’t exactly the word. TAN!, after all, are troopers. There were maybe fifteen paying spectators in the house when the show was scheduled to start, especially jarring considering how huge Webster Hall is. And TAN! likes to start shows with “Bodies Adjust,” a song that starts out quiet and atmospheric, hushed vocals and electronic whirs, before erupting into a jagged blur of roiling drums and wiry guitar riffs and general chaos while the band members charge through the audience and jump over each other and spazz the fuck out. I saw them pull it off earlier this year, when the band completely won me over opening the second day of Pitchfork’s Intonation Festival in Chicago. It killed there, and I can only imagine what it does in a packed club. But they didn’t have a packed club last night, and they did it anyway. You have to admire that dedication. Thunderbirds’ entire set was full-bore caustic-dancepunk freakout, and the band didn’t let the general lack of a crowd stop them from putting on a stops-out show. And they kept up like that for the entire set: limbs flying, shards of riffs busting through densely propulsive hyperfunk beats, unidentified dudes wandering onstage to yell backing-vocal parts. If anything, I’d like to see the band temper their constricted overdrive with quiet bits the way they do on “Bodies Adjust.” I’m not going to tell them to do that, though.
Blood on the Wall doesn’t have TAN!’s shattering energy, but it does have a certain self-assured gut-churning ugliness, falling-apart guitar squalls rubbing up against Courtney Shanks’s Kim Gordon deadpan and Brad Shanks’s horrible playground-taunt screech not quite hard enough to obscure the pretty, hooky songs underneath all the murk. The band played pretty much the same set as it did last month at the DUMBO art festival, and once again it didn’t play its best song, “I’d Like to Take You Out Tonight.” But maybe it’s for the best; that song’s languid beauty would only interrupt the slimy groove the band built up over its 20-minute set. And so Blood on the Wall remains the only new New York band I’ve heard that actually captures some of the feeling of walking drunk by yourself through the city at four in the morning. And that’s a feeling that needs to be captured.
I probably shouldn’t even write about the Hold Steady anymore. I’ve written about them too much already: interviewed Craig Finn twice, reviewed Separation Sunday for Pitchfork. More to the point, I actually sort of know the dudes in the band now; they’ve gotten me drunk. And enough has been written about this band that nothing I’d write about them at this point would convince anyone still on the fence about them. Last night’s show was, I think, the seventh time I’ve seen the band in the past two years, so it doesn’t surprise me anymore to hear ranted hyperliterate refracted lowlife poetry over huge triumphant bar-rock choogle-riffs anymore. At this point, I don’t even listen to the words. I wouldn’t be able to hear the words anyway; Finn was drunk and slurry, losing his place and yelling some of the same lines over and over. But those big riffs still move me, and they sound even bigger in a club the size of Webster Hall. Last night was the band’s last show of the year, the final show of the tour they’ve been on for the past month and a half. They were drunk and happy to be home, and they radiated a goodwill I don’t often see at shows. It was fun seeing them in a big club with a crystal-clear soundsystem and revolving spotlight-beams whirling around behind them. There was a glorious incongruity: this scrappy ugly drunk indie-rock band honing its dirtiness rather than cleaning it up or strategically deploying it, headlining its biggest local club yet and still treating it like a friend’s basement. In music, mystique and professionalism pay bills, but it does my heart good to see that there’s still a little room for a few bands who don’t have any of either but who do this indie-rock shit right.