Want to know how a Resurrection really feels? Feels like The Hold Steady’s triumphant weekend return to First Avenue.
There isn’t a band with Minnesota roots going these days that has more fervent fans than Craig Finn and his band of merry pranksters. They were scheduled to be here back in May of 2020. Nearly 2,000 people patiently endured the dark days while music slept. Enthusiasm was stored and threatened to pop the bottle. When the band hit the Mainroom stage on Saturday and back to back Entry shows on Sunday, it was an emotional homecoming.
I was fortunate to catch the bookends. Thank you to my young friend Sarah who provided a pair for the last of the three. Rarely, will you find me waiting in line to make my way into a club. Tall enough to get by. Old enough that I prefer to avoid the front when the bangin’ starts. However, last night my partner was my vertically challenged wife. If you know The Entry, you know there’s really only one area that suits the shorter folks. We would have to get there early in order to secure a spot on the upper level rail.
Not to worry, however, I quipped. If anybody in town was going to be at all three shows and at the front of any line, it would be the Twin Cities’ most knowledgeable and dedicated live music fan, one Paul Engebretson. If you’re someone who easily slides from one venue to another, from one style to another, you know Paul. Or you recognize the grizzled head front and center night after night. As we drove up 7th Street, all I needed to do was roll down the car window and call out: “Hey Paul! Thanks for saving us a spot!” Thumbs up.
I’ll confess, I was a tiny bit nervous prior to that Sunday Entry show. Ironic because no other room in the metro can hold a candle to the energy it can produce. It’s part layout. It’s more history that bands feed off. Coming off a Saturday night Mainroom explosion, I wondered if all that power and energy injected into those intimate confines might be just a bit too much. More in the wheelhouse of a me 15 or 20 years younger.
This whole affair was more than just a series of concerts. This was the band’s weekend. And all of us were The Weekenders. The anticipation was palpable when I walked into The Mainroom Saturday night. All three shows had been flash sell outs when those 2020 tickets went on sale. No last minute takers or casual fans. More like 1500 folks that had been counting the days.
The whole weekend had a feel that it was all about us. About Minnesotans. About First Avenue. About putting all this Covid pain behind us. It seemed appropriate that The Hold Steady didn’t show up with another touring band of buddies, as they are wont to do. Instead, up and coming locals Kiss The Tiger and Gully Boys tuned us up. It was our celebration.
Kiss The Tiger has a number of years under their belt. Paid some dues and finally getting rewarded with their third release Vicious Kid. Suddenly, they are everywhere creating a buzz. Frontwoman Meghan Kreidler was full on chuffed when she hit the stage. There’s nothing like the Mainroom to bring bands to another level, to separate the good ones from the wannabes. The place was full, the crowd was there to participate with an opener. We were looking out for our own. Kiss The Tiger rocked the joint and served notice we’re going to be seeing more of them as they break.
Not to beat a dead horse, but literally every person in the local scene quickly knew that the band’s van and all the gear was stolen last month. When word got out, the community mobilized and gear was replaced. When fans love you, they’ll do that. One of my favorite moments of their time on stage had nothing to do with the music. It occurred with the announcement that bass player Nat had that guitar back. It popped up on Craigslist. Yeah, now there’s a good idea when the entire local music community is outraged and on the look out! Just goes to prove that most criminals don’t have a long shelf life because Darwinism spells their doom. Remember the scene from Tremors? “Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room didn’t you, you bastard?”
Let’s get one detail out of the way immediately. The Hold Steady currently operates out of Brooklyn. That’s a business decision. However, this will always be OUR band. The Twin Cities has one of the most vibrant scenes in the land. But it’s not nearly big enough for a band of this stature. Let Craig Finn set the record straight when he told us: “This is the first time I’ve ever come back to Minneapolis and I have no living family member here. But I tell you what. In about the first 30 seconds into the first song tonight, I realized that this is home. Always has been. Always will be.”
Later, he pointed out that in retrospect, this whole Covid episode “couldn’t have written a better script. 615 days after our last show we come home to the best club in the universe.”
The band immediately served notice that this night was different. That Finn, Tad Kubler, Galen Polivka, Franz Nicolay, Steve Selvidge and Bobby Drake were there to exorcise nearly two years of personal demons. Players got to play! A handful of virtual concerts from the Brooklyn Bowl kept the lights on and reminded them that fans were still out there, albeit locked down. But Saturday was communion time.
The Hold Steady makes great records. The debut The 80s Nearly Killed Me was a bolt from the blue and goes on my desert island. But records are only half the point. HS is one of the most exciting live bands on the planet. The approach has always been: “Okay, you misfits! Let’s rip this joint together!” I have no idea how many times or places I’ve seen the band. But I will say, I’ve never seen them better than Saturday night. They were magnificent.
I was standing in my favorite spot near the back with a couple musicians friends. One, a legendary Twin Cities’ guitarist who asked to remain nameless, opined. “This is the best configuration this band has ever had!” I couldn’t agree more. When keyboard maestro Franz Nicolay left the band in 2010, many of us wondered how they’d ever replace both his sound and presence. But one of the advantages of being a great band is that your phone (I was going to say Rolodex but realized an entire generation might be confused) is stuffed with world class players who’d jump at the chance to join you. So it isn’t about finding somebody who can do it. It’s more about the chemistry of what happens when you do.
Enter Steve Selvidge with whom the band worked in Memphis when they recorded Heaven Is Forever. To my mind, he brought a bit more production value and fullness to what the band was doing. It also changed the direction of the band in that he’s a guitar player. So rather than a band built around Nicolay’s keys and Kubler’s guitar, it became a two guitar attack.
Franz returned in 2016. That gives the band this incredible amount of flexibility to drive a melody or create layers. The Hold Steady has never sounded better. The latest wrinkle that struck me was that on most songs, Kubler and Selvidge employed matching Gibson 335s to weave lead lines. Normally, bands with multiple guitars use different models; every guitar has its own unique tone. Using the matched pair was like hearing siblings harmonize. There’s this genetic complement which is unmistakable. Finn is armed with a spiffy looking Fender tele: (don’t worry folks the SG with TC Bear is alive and well) you’ve still got the contrast. Those matched Gibsons punch through the room like a set of brass knuckles.
Between Saturday and Sunday’s shows I talked with a lot of folks about the band. It’s interesting to note that I heard opinions that ranged from: They really were at their peak during the Lifter Puller days to… Their early records were my favorite because of the desperation you could feel in them to… Craig Finn really matured as a writer in that three album set with Uptown Controllers. People have strong opinions.
I refuse to be drawn into that debate. Instead, what struck me for the first time Saturday in The Mainroom was the arc. This band has continually evolved. It’s not a matter of “this is better than that”. At some point, what they were up to just happened to connect with your own personal taste. Case in point: Open Door Policy incorporates a bit of everything that’s made them so special. I’ve heard people say they love the new album because it’s a return to their rock roots. It is. At the same time, songs like Heavy Covenant build on the charcoal sketch narrative voice Finn developed with The Uptown Controllers. I think we should all just appreciate the ride and wait with anticipation for what the band will do next.
I’m with Finn in saying that The Mainroom is like no other. I’ve been going to that room since the early 80s. It would be crazy to say Saturday was my favorite show of all time. I don’t think I could even begin to parse that kind of a list. However, I will say that I’ve never seen the room more lit. That takes more than a favorite band. It requires a hunger from an extended period spent wandering the desert. It takes a congregation bearing witness to a Resurrection.
Look, I recognize 2021 is not done. There are still a bunch of cool shows to go on the docket. I stood at some local festivals through the summer and fall which made my heart sing. Those of us with TCM have the privilege of compiling a list of our favorite shows each year and publishing it. As if anybody really cared. Let’s just say it ain’t over til it’s over. But there’s one out to get, the bases are empty and The Hold Steady is up by 9. This weekend tops that list.
I say weekend, not show, because as triumphant as The Mainroom was, The Entry was simply insane. One of the funniest moments of the evening came shortly after my wife and I staked out our spot on the rail at 8:01pm. (Remember Paul Engebretson holding the front of the line?) She asked: “What time are they going on?” “9:30, I think.” “You brought me here an hour and a half early?!” (well there was that issue of being 5’2″ in a sold out Entry). Then Lori Barbero, in DJ mode, dropped Mott The Hoople’s Roll Away The Stone on the platter. I was in one of my favorite spots in town, with a killer sound system washing me in beautifully curated music. I’ll stand there all night with a grin on my face.
What must it be like to do three two hour pedal to the metal shows in a 24 hour period? If you were in your 20s, you’d just be getting warmed up. Sharp as a razor. In your 30s, you’d have the power and experience to dominate it. In your 40s, you could weather it. Getting up around 50? Would they, could they, match what they pulled off in the Mainroom?
Folks, they did it again. It was a different setlist. It was a different vibe. You can only fit the six core band members on the Entry stage, so no Horns Steady like in the big room. Yet, I do believe they had more fun being within arms reach of that frenzied crowd as the confetti flew. Finn has always been a gabber. He’s full of fun and hyperbole. But he’s never been afraid to tell you how he honestly feels. I don’t know if he does this more often when he’s home as opposed to on the road. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons we Minnesotans hold him close.
He summed it up when he looked about the place and reminded us of the importance of that little black box. He posted a picture of his 15 year old self standing on that stage. He still didn’t look like a rock star. He told us he’d seen Husker Du for the first time in this room. The Replacements. Fugazi. Most of us who prowl the clubs harbor secret dreams of being rock and rollers. Somehow we see the artist as different or apart. Craig Finn reminds us that dreams do, in fact, come true as long as you’re willing to never give in. Like the poster in my Mom’s kitchen said: Big shots are just little shots that keep shooting!
When he muttered “Oh shit, The Party Pit”, the place exploded. Those who shoehorned themselves in were there for just that. If you love and understand the spirit that underpins rock and roll, Sunday night was just about perfect. Confetti and pogo. Hands and voices raised. No bodies banging. Everybody looking after one another. When that kind of volume and energy pours through a room, it’s a fine line between euphoria and mayhem. Nobody walks that line better than the Hold Steady community.
I had some Massive Nights. Even if I didn’t catch that “all ages, hardcore matinee show”. I witnessed a resurrection.
She had blue black ink
Etched into her lower back
Said Damn Right You’ll Rise Again!
Damn Right You’ll Rise Again!