That image comes courtesy of a Google image search for “unprecedented awesomeness.” Can you guess what I’m talking about? Friends, Romans, people who only read this blog when I bash Axl Rose, I’m talking about the best band there is right now, period. I’m talking about The Hold Motherfucking Steady. When it comes to critical awesomeness, I can only be talking about The Hold Steady live.
Let me tell you how my last couple weeks has been. My band played a show. Pretty good, right? Yeah, then the drummer announced (literally at the next rehearsal) that he was moving to New York. On July 5th. July 5th is also the anniversary of my sister’s death and I found out on that day that the folks she lived with, who told me they’d find a place for her ashes, hadn’t done so yet. This is kinda important to me because 1) my sister wanted a physical place for her remains so that my niece would have a place to connect with her mom’s memory and 2) I was left in charge of all that shit (my sister’s last and perhaps finest prank on me) and I had to sign a form saying I wouldn’t abandon my sister’s remains at the funeral home (I will probably never do anything more fucking surreal than that again in my life unless Tom Waits shows up at my door randomly with a basket of home-made tacos). I’ve been staying with my boss’s dogs while my boss is out of town for a couple weeks, which means I get to occasionally visit my home, my fiance, and my dog. Oh yeah – my dog has had two fucking seizures in the last couple weeks, one of which was during the opening band’s set at last night’s Hold Steady show. The drummer who moved to NYC was supposed to go to the show with me, so I tried to hold a contest to give his ticket away in the spirit of Hold Steady-related charity. We all know how that went.
Point is, I really needed this show last night. And The Hold Steady did not disappoint me, oh no. No, they surpassed even the ass-breaking awesomeness of the first time I saw them at Lola’s Room in Portland.
The opening band was Mariachi El Bronx, which is the punkish band The Bronx doing their stuff Mariachi style. They were entertaining enough but gimmicky as fuck. Might want to hear those songs in their original forms, but I don’t care that you can dress up like a Mariachi band and rearrange all that stuff. Just. Don’t. Care.
As previously reported, I found out (via text message from my fiance) after Mariachi El Bronx left the stage that my dog had had another seizure. I also observed that a few of the 7 Obnoxious Assholes who show up at every concert were flocking near my position. As the show went on, I discovered whole groups of Set List Generators and one fat fucking alcoholic who spilled his beer on me – he was orbited by a couple smaller alcoholics who exhibited whirling dervish tendencies. You’d better read the Cracked article if you don’t know what I’m talking about here.
None of which, in the grand scheme of things, changes this simple fact: America’s best rock band, right now today, is The Hold Steady. I can see you about to suggest an alternative, but…just…don’t. There isn’t one.
They took the stage at 10:15 sharp, with Craig Finn walking up to the mic, giving a quick greeting and then launching right into “Hornets! Hornets!” from Separation Sunday. Wait. What? There are a ton of pretty obvious choices for opening song at a Hold Steady show (my money was on “Constructive Summer”), but Finn and company threw a delicious curveball with “Hornets,” starting a set that was dominated by Separation Sunday and Stay Positive.
You can, after every concert you go to, talk about all the shit that you wanted to hear that you didn’t hear. And I could devote some time to talking about how The Hold Steady didn’t even touch Almost Killed Me (not even their formerly customary closer “Killer Parties”) or how they didn’t play “Ask Her for Adderall,” which is one of their best songs. But the truth is, I don’t care. The SLGs in front of me kept calling for “Knuckles,” a song which I really love, but at the end of the day, you have to trust the bands you love to do the heavy lifting. That’s why they’re on the stage and you’re drunk in the audience. Sure, there was stuff I wanted to hear, but there wasn’t a weak spot in that show last night, so who cares if my preconceived notions weren’t met? Fuck preconceived notions! Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that the neck tattoo may be the new tramp stamp.
What The Hold Steady delivered last night, for nearly two hours, was pretty much the Platonic ideal of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Joe Strummer is dead, but the humanist spirit and generosity of his being and his music lives on in bands like The Hold Steady. They created a set that, by its very nature, lifted people into the air and forced shouts of joy from their throats. You think I’m making this shit up? Go see The Hold Steady live – and the only way to do it is to get down front and close with a bunch of strangers. One cannot have a personal space bubble at a Hold Steady show. Perhaps their finest pairing of last was playing the title track from Stay Positive (which is designed to make their fans jump up and down and shout at the top of our lungs) followed by “Constructive Summer”, at which point I was, in whatever spiritual sense there is, in ecstasy. When the entire audience not only sang, “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer,” but actually raised a toast to St. Joe, I realized something completely awesome: almost everyone there last night knew every word of every song. They were all sing-along songs and they will damn sure be our scriptures. At least they’ll be mine. Let’s face it: “Constructive Summer” is a helluva lot more compelling than, say, Leviticus.
Though I have not wavered in my belief that Tad Kubler is the best guitar player on Earth (I will fight you if you think John Mayer is better than Tad Kubler. I will fucking fight you), he made yet another compelling case last night, scorching through the solo on “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” and actually improving the solo from “Joke About Jamaica” by using a wah-wah pedal instead of a talk-box. Kubler flew around the stage and made it look much – much – easier than it was. The guy gave me chills.
Los Angeles audiences are not, in my (not so humble) opinion, as awesome as Portland audiences. The L.A. kids started out okay but showed early signs of fading, not bouncing nearly as much as they should have for songs like “Constructive Summer” and “Banging Camp” (there were a few, myself included, who held up our end of the deal). And, when it came to the encore, a lot of the people just expected the band to come back out and didn’t make nearly enough noise to deserve an encore.
However, I’m glad the band is nicer than I am (I really wouldn’t have come back out if I was them) because the encore was instructive: “Stuck Between Stations” followed by “You Gotta Dance (with Who You Came With)”, “Southtown Girls,” and ending with “Slapped Actress,” which was a very effective closer. Last night was my fourth time seeing The Hold Steady live and it was the best time because they were still able to surprise me. They played stuff I didn’t think they’d play and they crafted a set that was designed for maximum cardiovascular benefit – I’m literally sore today, which is the best indicator of how hard The Hold Steady rocked last night.