The Hold Steady at Detroit Bar Last Night

The Hold Steady with Jaill

August 25, 2010
Detroit Bar, Costa Mesa
People, including members of the Hold Steady, like to say that the Minneapolis-via-Brooklyn quartet is essentially a well-bred “bar band.” That's not right at all, though. A Hold Steady show should never be a background soundtrack to you deciding what your next cocktail is going to be. Rather, it's more an arena-ready church sermon about bona fide bar bands and the people who drink with them.

This all became especially clear at Detroit Bar, a venue where, if we're to believe in the Hold Steady's bar-band rep, they should excel. And, to be sure, they excelled in a manner, but it was as if all the energy radiating from the stage was being absorbed by the low ceiling instead of bouncing off of it: The place was packed, and at Detroit that means a lot of people end up cut off from a clear sight-and-sound line from the stage. 

There's that damn bottleneck by the entrance, and even those who get past it found themselves crushed together and, in the back half of the room, immobile even in the most kinetic moments in the early part of the show. It wouldn't matter if even the Hold Steady's casual fans didn't hunger to watch Craig Finn's frantic delivery and hoot along with a chorus or two. But that's what the Hold Steady's about, and so it's a shame they weren't at a venue that could deliver that experience to a bigger percentage of the crowd.

But blame not the Hold Steady for context constraints. Instead, praise them for continuing to sell their shtick as masterfully and soul-satisfyingly as they do each night. This is a band that, five albums in, has taken an honest look at their own discography to deliver a well paced and compositionally varied set. The slowly unfurling “Positive Jam,” the debut song off of their debut album, opened the show, signalling that the band wasn't afraid to throw back. Sure enough, they followed with a relatively deep but brilliant cut, “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” off of 2005's Separation Sunday. It took nine songs in for them to pull out anything from the high-watermark Boys & Girls in America, but it was easy not to notice: Craig Finn and company selected their songs well, picking little-talked-about highlights of their discography like “Magazines” (off the mostly otherwise forgettable Stay Positive) to maintain momentum.
The smart set list and the tightly rehearsed delivery gives the sense, on an intellectual level at least, that the Hold Steady are great, obsessive planners. But the takeaway from watching them actually play is that they're emotionally invested, available, and connected to the music. Singer Finn is a bizarre and hilarious spectacle of hand motions and mouthed, inaudible asides and giddy, rhythm-free hand clapping. His lyrics are more mumbled in concert than they even are on the band's albums. If the tracks from the lukewarmly received new record Heaven is Whenever came across as a little squishier than the rest of the songs in the show, that's fine: We're left feeling that even if we don't believe much in the band's new direction, Finn–spittle and blurting and all–certainly does.
The crowd: Very dude-heavy, and in particular, weirdly old-dude heavy. And middle-aged dude heavy. 
Overheard: “Hey man, just wanted to thank you for being such a good friend.”
Set list:
Positive Jam
Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
Hurricane J
The Swish
Rock Problems
Constructive Summer

You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came To The Dance With)

Chips Ahoy
Stuck Between Stations
Stevie Nix
Going on a Hike
Girls Like Status
Hot Soft Light
Barely Breating
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
The Weekenders
South Town Girls
Massive Nights
A Slight Discomfort
We Can Get Together
You Can Make Him Like You
Sweet Payne

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