Hold Steady keyboardist Franz Nicolay imagines how he’d look with no mustache, portrait by Grant Siedlecki
The Hold Steady + P.O.S. + Miguel Mendez
April 7, 2006
I did the math before the show; I’m pretty sure Friday night was my eighth Hold Steady show, and this band has been a band for only a couple of years now. They played their second-ever show in Baltimore, but for some reason I didn’t go to that one. I did go to their sixth-ever show, also in Baltimore. I’ve seen them in a cramped little art gallery in front of less than a hundred people, and I’ve seen them onstage at Pitchfork’s Intonation Festival in front of a couple thousand. And the Hold Steady isn’t the Grateful Dead or whatever; it’s not like they vary their set list a whole lot. Every show is not a brand-new experience just waiting to be unlocked. They always plow through their choogled-up ranted-out refracted bar-rock with the same frantic abandon and beery joy. Craig Finn always manages to yell about half his lyrics into the mic, and his face always turns red about thirty seconds in. Tad Kubler always does the thing where he throws his guitar over his shoulder and catches it when it comes back. I’ve known pretty much exactly what I’ll be getting since show #2, and I still keep coming back because there’s not one single band in indie-rock that’s more fun to watch; even after the total perfection of Finn’s ecstatically sketchy lowlife word-jumble lyrics wears off, the triumphant riffage and spastic tightness and religious faith in the eternal potency of big-rock cliche keep their transportive power. Plus I always know people at the shows, which is nice.
At this point, I’ve written enough about the band that it doesn’t make sense to write much more, at least not until they drop another album. So I’ll just say this: of the eight times I’ve seen them, Friday night’s show at Warsaw was the best. Every time I’d see them play big, cavernous venues before, their arena-rock moves worked as pastiche but not much more; their gestures never quite filled up their alloted space, and it’s hard to make a half-empty show at Webster Hall feel like a big moment. But Warsaw wasn’t half-empty; it was jammed full of drunk people who knew the words and sang along, who treated the band like rock stars rather than like a doofy indie-rock band pretending to be rock stars. And the band stepped its game up for the crowd, hitting their big notes harder than ever. Maybe it was because the band hadn’t played New York for a while, or maybe it had something to do with the show being on the band’s home turf in Brooklyn, but it finally felt like they were taking their big victory lap before going back to the studio to make another record, their third in three years. They’ve just made the inexplicable but maybe brilliant move of signing with the uber-emo label Vagrant, so maybe the next time we see them they’ll be something like actual stars with videos on Fuse and skateboard sponsorship deals or whatever. Knowing this band, they’ll play another five local shows before the album comes out, but if this is the end of an era for them, they ended it right.
And seeing Craig Finn rap was just a bonus. Finn raps exactly the same way he sings, in a splenetic nasal blurt, and it sounds pretty good on an actual rap track, even with him looking crazy goofy, not sure what to do with his hands when he didn’t have a guitar, shirt tucked in, even more nervous than usual. It was definitely the highlight of dork-rap opener P.O.S.’s set. I like the idea of rappers on indie-rock bills just like I like the idea of P.O.S., a self-conscious/self-righteous Midwestern rap kid with a mall-punk streak wide enough to get the Bouncing Souls guy on his album. Unfortunately, neither one of them works that well in practice, or at least they didn’t on Friday night. For one thing, P.O.S. didn’t have a DJ or a hypeman with him, and nobody should ever let a rapper alone onstage; they get all talky and clammy and stammery. For another, what’s the opposite of swagger? Because that’s what P.O.S. has, and that definitely didn’t help with the clamminess thing. As he went onstage: “Say ‘yes’ if you don’t like rap that much. [Silence.] It’s OK; I won’t get offended.” Even with the Midwest-transplant contingent in the crowd making noise whenever he said the word Minneapolis, he looked embarrassed and uncomfortable onstage, like a dormroom rapper who didn’t know what to do when he finally got people to pay attention to him. As a producer, he’s dense and gothy, something like Eminem if he was trying to get down with Def Jux. As a rapper, he’s also something like Eminem trying to get down with Def Jux, only not as good. Audition, his second album, has some nice moments of skronky force, but for all its ambitious sweep, it doesn’t have a lot of the blustery self-assurance that any great rapper needs. He needs to work on that, but I’m not sure he wants to.
Opener Miguel Mendez has a bio that namechecks Elliott Smith and Neil Young, but onstage he sounded more like a non-squeaky Matthew Sweet. His amiable trad-indie chug has a lot of electric piano and a few big, sticky hooks; it’s utterly unsurprising but totally satisfying. I feel kind of bad for a guy like this because he has no big attention-grabbing angle; he’s just a really solid old-school power-pop dude, exactly the kind of guy who can easily get lost in the next-shit shuffle. But I’m pretty sure his spazzy Phillip Seymour Hoffman-looking drummer was the same guy who played bass for Early Man when I saw them a couple of months ago, and maybe that guy knows a winning team when he sees one.
Download: “You’ve Got Me All Wrong”