Father's Day weekend was a good one for me, as I got to go to three awesome shows in four days. Oh, and I guess I also got to spend time with my lovely wife and children, without whom I wouldn't be a father, as far as I know. That Thursday night, I saw The Hold Steady at Thalia Hall, followed by a night off, followed by another Hold Steady show at the Empty Bottle Saturday night, and capped off with a Metallica Father's Day show at Soldier Field. All three concerts were fantastic in their own way, but I'm here today to talk about The Hold Steady.
One of my favorite bands of the last 15 years (and period) is The Hold Steady. I've been a fan since the Separation Sunday days, and according to my Setlist.fm stats, I've seen THS 14 times -- nearly twice as many times as the runner-up, Def Leppard (who, coincidentally, I saw live this past Saturday). Hell, I've even paid money (for a good cause) to have the drummer, Bobby Drake, over to my house to change my oil.
The band played three nights in a row in Chicago as part of a "Chicago Seemed Wired Last Night" weekend (a nod to a lyric in the band's song "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night"). The Thursday and Friday night shows were at Thalia Hall down in Pilsen. As I mentioned, I went to the Thursday show. I had never been to Thalia Hall, and I thought it was a pretty cool concert space (as most old theaters converted to concert halls tend to be). A couple superfans got engaged at the show. Here's a picture -- not of the engagement, but of my general vantage point of the stage:
The Saturday night show was at The Empty Bottle, which is having a bunch of great bands play this year in celebration of the club's 25th anniversary. If you've never been there, The Empty Bottle has a capacity of about 300 people, and it's a fantastically dingy rock club. It's definitely the smallest venue in which I've ever seen The Hold Steady. Because I'm in the fan club, I was able to score tickets in the presale, but apparently the show sold out in only a few minutes. I was pretty damned excited about going, and the band didn't disappoint. We were about five feet from the stage, on the side with keyboardist Franz Nicolay. It was hot, and we were pounding Shiner Bocks and High Lifes to keep us hydrated. During two of the songs, fans in the front row always throw confetti at a specific point in each song, and we were lucky enough to be part of the confetti mafia this time around. Of course, we were so sweaty that when we threw the confetti in the air, half of it just stuck to our hands. I was finding pieces of confetti on my body for the next day or two.
This concert was a top ten lifetime show, for sure, and maybe top five. It was a show for the hardcore fans, and the band killed it. By the end of the show, lead singer Craig Finn's bandmates had ripped the sleeves and the sides of his shirt right off. During the last song, the band invited everyone up onto the very small stage. It was a party and a hell of a fun time. Here are a few more pictures and my video of Finn talking to the crowd during the intro of the last song ("Killer Parties"), right before everything got crazy, followed by someone else's video starting just about where mine left off, and finishing out "Killer Parties," showing you some confetti and the mess of people on stage. What a great show.
If you've never heard of The Hold Steady or if you've heard of them but never listened to their music, I highly recommend you check them out. I suppose they would be described as indie rock, whatever the fuck that means, but I just consider them a rock and roll band. I remember the first review of theirs that I read described them as being a band that you would like if you used to really be into AC/DC, but now you read a lot. I've also seen them described as the best bar band in the world. I'm not sure if either is totally accurate, but it paints a decent enough picture of what the band is all about. Lead singer Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler handle most of the songwriting, crafting intricate, amazing, Springsteen-esque stories about drugs, booze, strange characters, religion, Midwestern teenage life, growing up, and being past your prime. I mean, who writes a concept album about the traveling partying exploits of a born-again hooker/addict named Hallelujah (her parents named her Holly), a pimp named Charlemagne, and a skinhead named Gideon? The Hold Steady, that's who.
On top of that, they are one of the best live bands out there. I've never seen them put on a bad show, and they always seem like they're having a good time. When Craig Finn tells the crowd "there is so much joy in what we do up here" -- as he does at most shows -- you have to believe him.
But enough talking, let's get to the music. I decided to pick my favorite song off of each of the six Hold Steady albums, along with another four wildcards.
Favorite song off of each album:
1. "The Swish" (Almost Killed Me, 2004)
The first song off the band's debut album, Almost Killed Me, is called "Positive Jam," and it's kind of a plodding, Velvet Underground meets slam poetry meets grunge song with a '70s rock outro. It makes sense if you hear it. But that feeds into the second song on the album, "The Swish," which is a more of a straightforward rock song that would be a harbinger of things to come for the band. It's a song with great guitars, a driving beat, and Finn's half-speaking, half-singing voice slinging random pop culture and geographic references set against a backdrop of drug abuse.
2. "Banging Camp" (Separation Sunday, 2005)
The band's sophomore album, Separation Sunday, is the aforementioned concept album. This was the first Hold Steady album I bought, and I was immediately taken aback by these strange, druggy stories about Catholicism. It was also the first album where keyboardist Franz Nicolay was a full-time member of the band, and the piano and organ adds a fullness to the songs, really making the band sound like a demented, Midwestern modern version of the E Street Band. Picking my favorite song off of this one was tough because there are several that are close to the top -- "Banging Camp," "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," and "How a Resurrection Really Feels." Out of those, I'm going with "Banging Camp," just because I have to choose. It's another great rocker, that sounds like if The Replacements played glam, produced by Phil Spector. "I dig those awkward silences / 'Cause I grew up in denial / I went to school in Massachusetts." I don't know why that line has always struck me as funny.
3. "Massive Nights" (Boys and Girls in America, 2006)
This is my favorite Hold Steady song off of my favorite Hold Steady album. With Boys and Girls in America, the band made an opus to the ups and downs of young love. "Massive Nights" is about getting blasted and going to a school dance, with a groovy bassline, sneaky little organ snippets, and a raucous chorus that is meant to be sung at the top of one's lungs. This is a great live song.
4. "Constructive Summer" (Stay Positive, 2008)
Stay Positive is probably my second favorite Hold Steady album. Top to bottom, it rocks. And "Constructive Summer" kicks the album off on a great tone. The song is a fast-paced rocker about drinking and building shit during the summer, probably.
5. "Hurricane J" (Heaven is Whenever, 2010)
Heaven Is Whenever was the first album the band made after Nicolay left the band. I had expected it to be a little big harder, as a result, but it wasn't. That's not to say it's a bad album, but I didn't like it as much as the previous albums. "Hurricane J" is a song about a mess of a girl named Jessie. As far as I know, it's not written about my wife, but I do enjoy referring to my wife, when drunk, as Hurricane Jessie. I also like telling her, "You're a beautiful girl / And you're a pretty good waitress / Jessie, I don't think I'm the guy."
6. "Spinners" (Teeth Dreams, 2014)
The band's most recent album, 2014's Teeth Dreams, was the first to feature second guitarist Steve Selvidge. I like Teeth Dreams better than Heaven Is Whenever because it has more of an edge to it. You can definitely tell the band was writing songs about darker themes about aging and being past your prime. "Spinners" is an example, about a woman on the rebound who needs to get back out there in the big city, get drunk, and get laid -- but don't go overboard.
7. "Killer Parties" (Almost Killed Me, 2004)
This is the last song on the band's first album, and it's usually the last song they play during live shows, turning it into an extended jam. It's a Pixies-esque, slower, fuzzy song about, well, parties. This unofficial stop-motion animation video set to the song is also pretty nifty.
8. "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" (Separation Sunday, 2005)
What a great song title. It's another fascinating and rocking song off of Separation Sunday. I'm not sure why the sound is so soft on the video.
9. "You Can Make Him Like You" (Boys and Girls in America, 2006)
A song about young love gone stale, with the hope that there are always other fish in the sea. The first stanza is magnificent: "You don't have to deal with the dealers / Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers / It only gets inconvenient / When you wanna get high alone." This is another unofficial video, which appears to have nothing to do with the actual song, but is nonetheless interesting.
10. "Stuck Between Stations" (Boys and Girls in America, 2006)
This is the first song off of Boys and Girls in America, and the band often starts off shows with this one. It's a clever, rollicking song. I hate to make another Springsteen comparison, but this is Springsteen-esque in its sound, but uniquely Hold Steady in its lyrics. "She was a really cool kisser / But she wasn't all that strict of a Christian / She was a damn good dancer / But she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend." Things to think about when picking a mate, kids.
11. "Ask Her For Her Adderall" (non-album track, 2008)
This is a bonus track on the Stay Positive album, and now it's a bonus track on this list. I don't know why this didn't make the cut for the album, as it's a good, rocking song that would seem to have fit well on the album. It's about a guy who's telling his friend what to tell his presumably ex-girlfriend or a hanger-on who wants to be his girlfriend. "If she happens to suggest a love based on truth and respect / Tell her I've been wasted since last week." That sums up most of my potentially serious college relationships, or lack thereof. This is another unofficial video, and it's also pretty good.