Six shows, Five days, One car

Things are a little less cloudy and my ears have stopped ringing. It turns out the pain I was experiencing was actually a developing ear infection and it’s slowed me down considerably until I went to the doctor and got some nifty antibiotics. I’m just going to ramble here, so if that’s not what you expected, it’s probably best to hit the “BACK” button on your browser right now.

The last week of the tour was probably the most fun I’ve had traveling to see The Hold Steady since I started leaving the region in summer of 2008. The band was incredibly, impossibly tight every night (I’ll admit, the addition of the new dudes left me having some doubts), but as soon as they kicked in with “Sweet Part of the City” that auspicious Tuesday night in Cleveland, it was GAME ON.

The song is a prelude. Think about it. “We were bored so we started a band. We’d like to play for you.” It’s a totally brilliant “welcome to the rock show” introduction.

Day 1

Cleveland, as attendees have previously reported, was a bit out of control. To point fingers – there were a group of kids (allegedly close to two-dozen) at the gig to celebrate their friend’s 21st birthday. No one really seemed to inform them that extreme, belligerent drunkenness pre-show may not be the healthiest decision for anyone. They didn’t respect personal space before the music began, which was the first issue, and the fact that they were openly antagonistic to bystanders was just too much. I can understand the lack of personal space while the music is going on, but before is a big no-no in my book. People were hit. There were the police. The band stopped. Craig said “It can’t possibly be worth it that much”. He was right.

Day 2

My first impressions of Pittsburgh: It’s a city with an east coast mentality featuring an impressive array of subcultures. To name a few: Hip-hop heads, crust punks, goth kids, indie rockers, and a hell of a lot of Penguins fans. I had plenty of time to people watch outside while I waited for doors to open. The venue, Diesel Club Lounge, was most certainly a dance club, and I couldn’t help but crack Wayne’s World jokes, as it reminded me of the place where Crucial Taunt played that revved-up version of “Ballroom Blitz”.

The show itself was certainly unique – a smattering of old jams and an abnormally high number of unreleased b-sides – “Criminal Fingers,” “Touchless” and for some, the why-isn’t-this-on-the-record WTF of “Goin’ On A Hike”. The first few rows of the crowd seemed to contain most of the jumping up and down and singing – while the back rows seemed to watch almost pensively.

Highlights of the evening – my buddy Whiskey Daisy finally hearing “Arms and Hearts” after close to twenty shows – totally special.Also, that ridiculously great steak sandwich I had at Primanti Brothers, post show. Oh my word. Steak. Cheese. Tomatoes. Cole Slaw. French Fries. ALL ON THE SANDWICH.

Day 3

The next morning, we headed for Morgantown, West Virginia. Our drive there was encumbered by an hour and a half long shutdown on I – 376/US 22 Monroeville. Turns out that there was a pretty bad accident where an SUV had flipped over several lanes of traffic. I found it easier just to blame the Canadian that was driving our car. Actually, that was our excuse for a lot of things that week.

Anyways: Morgantown. Very unique place. I made some cracks about meth-heads and Mountain Dew on Facebook, and got an earful about them before I got there. I now regret that. The show at 123 Pleasant Street (not surprisingly, on the street of the same address) was one of those tiny club shows that stick with you for ages. It was so small that rumor had it that there wasn’t a ‘traditional backstage’ area. The instruments were packed in so tight that Bobby had to jump over his drum kit to get behind it. My thoughts of this intimacy and closeness hearkened back to the Iowa City show at the Picador last April. The crowd was jacked that a band of THS’s caliber was in town, and everyone was excitable and great to be around. No brutality, just a lot of high fives.

These super small shows are where the Hold Steady really thrives. The energy is so concentrated and infectious and there’s an entirely different sense of togetherness compared to that at some of the larger shows.

A friend of mine wondered out loud if the band would play “Girls Like Status”. Some of us were skeptical. When the band unleashed in in the encore, it was great to see his face light up at the sound of the opening chords. It’s nice how things work out like that.

Day 4

Earlier in the week, someone mentioned to me “Jersey Mike? Mike Van Jura? That dude seems to know how to throw a party.”

Yes.

I remarked that I hadn’t been so excited for a music-related event since prom like I was for Harrisburg. That’s kind of the truth.

The family reunion vibe to this gig – the fact that so many US-ers had come in from all over the map and were mostly at the same hotel heightened the excitement. Jersey really pulled all the stops out for this one – the “Steadheads” flyers he dropped off in the hotel lobby – the “Stay Positive” symbol entrance stamp, the confetti cannon that didn’t quite work (no fault of his own). All totally silly and totally great ideas that led to the “THIS IS A BIG DEAL” feeling surrounding the show. We felt it. The band knew it, and they killed it.

To exhaust a tired statement: the bar band was back in the bar. It needs to be said. “Barfruit Blues,” “Most People are DJ’s,” and “The Swish” – all AKM era favorites, all perfect, sounding totally and completely infinite. Everything seemed to pop. (Download the recording of this show from the archive. Essential.) So sweaty, so much confetti, punctuated by a divine version of “Killer Parties”. Catching up with and meeting new people post-show was awesome. It makes me wish that more shows I attended were more like that. I’ll never forget that night. One for the ages.


Photo courtesy of Rich Tarbell

Day 5

New York was the perfect postscript to the storybook week that preceded it. Dually, it was the most ambitious day of Hold Steady show-going that any of us had undertaken. Why? It’s simple. Two shows, two venues in one night. One Hold Steady show can be a throughly exhausting physical and mental experience. Two, well, getcha’ Gatorade ready!

So, um, let’s call a spade a spade here and say that I’m ‘particular’ about when to arrive for shows. The fact that there were two shows at two different venues, (and that the doors for the second venue opened before the first show was even over) was a logistical nightmare. How could we possibly wrangle get close up for both?

By the time we arrived at Bowery Ballroom, I was shocked to see that there was a line of people that had arrived over an hour before us. I was astounded, and to tell you the truth, kind of impressed.

One of the guys in line got my attention immediately. A precocious young guy – ‘hollywasahoodrat’ on this board – had some seriously infectious enthusiasm. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the fan of the future – a total encyclopedia. One moment still has me rolling: During the J. Roddy Walston and the Business set, he turned at me after he saw bassist Zach Westphal’s trademark mustache and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s delightful!”. Absolutely perfect.

Oh – a note about J. Roddy – there’s something richly authentic about them. From the piano rave ups, the huge choruses and the totally unbridled sexuality of their performances. No matter which way you swing, you sense it. They creep up behind an unsuspecting audience and shake them until they’re a bunch of believers. There’s no reason even try to fight it. Drink the Kool-Aid. It tastes good.

Back to the Hold Steady – it’s astounding how night and day different the show at Bowery felt compared to the show in Brooklyn at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. The Bowery show was very relaxed and the crowd seemed to ruminate every note. It’s rare, but that crowd seemed like they were there to appreciate the music more than participate in it. That’s fine. The setlist was conducive to that, especially starting with a stellar “Positive Jam”, the pleonastic (and that is not a complaint) “Cattle and the Creeping Things” to the sedate roll “A Slight Discomfort”.

Not to give the false impression that the show consisted of slower numbers, but they seemed to leave the most lasting impression at the first event of the evening.

We made the decision to split before the encore of the first show. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like going from rocking at maximum intensity to turning on your heels, wading through a crowd, running down two back staircases in the venue then right out into the street. We somehow flagged down a cab in under two minutes, have him be apprehensive about going into another borough, then spending another three minutes convincing him to drive us to Brooklyn to the show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. There was very little time to think about anything else then the task at hand. The five of us had a goal. Six minutes later we arrived at the venue, made it indoors, and to our amazement, found hardly anyone occupied the front area. At this point, you’re probably scoffing. That’s understandable. I don’t care though. It was a lot of fun. Another mission accomplished.

The Oranges Band opened up the second show, as they had all week for the Hold Steady. If you have not heard them, they are a really great, totally underrated group out of Baltimore. Lots of fun, hooky pop songs, including one called “Open Air”, that’s stuck in my head nearly two weeks later. Well worth checking out.

Just like that, The Hold Steady were suddenly on stage again to the strums of “Sweet Part of the City”. With the additional lighting on the stage and the energized crowd, it felt cinematic. I don’t know if the cameras there to capture the event were able to harness that feeling.

The set was peppered with old favorites – I’m assuming “The Swish” was there was a wink to the days when the band played there when venue was known as North Six – to unreleased tracks like “Goin’ on a Hike” and other nuggets like “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”. My favorite moments came with the flashes of guitar interplay between Koob and Steve. The synchronized solos during “We Can Get Together” were Allman-esque (that’s meant to be complimentary) and the the double acoustic guitars to start “First Night and “Citrus” were a nice twist as well.

With one more set closing “Hoodrat,” it was over. I don’t know what else to say other than what I already said above. It was an amazing week with some great music, excellent friends, and some nice new faces.

I can’t wait to do it all over again.

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