Live: The Hold Steady/Company of Thieves
WAREHOUSE LIVE — 11/6/10: The last time I saw The Hold Steady, they were playing Walter’s to a packed-in crowd of diehard fans and seemingly new converts, and it was — hand on my heart — one of the most amazing shows I’d ever seen. It was the kind of show that could make even the most jaded hipster-wannabe grin like an idiot, overcome by it all; hell, it bonded the ripped t-shirt kids and the flannel-wearing middle-aged guys, people who’d have probably avoided one another like the plague outside of that one special, incredible show. It was just freaking great.
On my way to this most recent show, then, I was worried. Not only was I all too aware that the rose-colored memory of an awesome show-gone-by can sour what would’ve been a darn good new show, but this time the band was playing at Warehouse Live, over east of downtown. It’s a big venue, with a big stage and room for a ton of people; not the kind of place for a band like The Hold Steady, who flat-out need to connect with the people for whom they’re performing.
Beyond that, they happened to be playing on a night when there were a ton of other good shows going on, enough that it would undoubtedly splinter the already-small fanbase that tends to go to shows like this. As I got closer to the venue, I became even more nervous — on a normal night, the corners nearby would’ve been filled with kids making their way to the Warehouse, and yet, the place was a ghost town.
I’d forgotten, however, that the Warehouse has not one but two stages, the main stage and the smaller, more close-in “Studio” stage, with a separate entrance on the far side of the building. It turned out that there was a decent-sized crowd, at least for that smaller room; they’d all apparently read their tickets correctly and parked on that side of the venue, unlike myself and a handful of other confused people.
By the time I got inside, openers Company of Thieves were preparing to hit the stage. I hadn’t heard a thing about the Chicago quintet, so I honestly had no idea what to expect. Judging by the number of people sitting in the back of the room, I wasn’t the only one, but there were at least a handful of people who were visibly psyched when the band started playing.
Within about a minute, I could understand why. The Thieves play a smoky, jam-y, bluesy form of indie-rock, and they attack it head-on, with both hands — the band’s a kissing cousin to retro-soul purveyors like Adele or Amy Winehouse, but with a much nastier, more ’60s classic-rock edge to it.
While her bandmates were talented — particularly fiery guitarist Marc Walloch and moonlighting ex-Hush Sound bassist Chris Faller — frontwoman Genevieve Schatz was definitely the focus of things. Her infectious, wide-smiling energy balanced out the awesome roar emanating from that dimunitive frame; the woman’s a blues-belter in indie-hippie clothing, make no mistake about it. Schatz’s performance combined the power and raw emotion of Beaumont-bred legend Janis with the head-swaying sweetness and melodic sense of Edie Brickell (the latter of whom, by the way, shouldn’t be judged by that one godawful song from back in the day). And all the while, she came off as absolutely sincere, with a charming, almost shy innocence in-between songs.
As a unit, Company of Thieves have a hell of a talent for great, bombastic mid-song changeups, smoothly derailing the train and barreling off in another direction while barely missing a beat. In the end, I was very impressed, although their 2009 album Ordinary Riches has so far been a bit of a slow-burner — there’s not nearly the fire of the live performance there, possibly because it was recorded without the full band that’s touring now.
The band seemed happily surprised by the crowd’s reaction to the music, especially since this was their first time visiting Houston. It was also apparently only Night #2 of their tour with The Hold Steady, and Schatz seemed excited as hell to be playing with the headliners.
When The Hold Steady came onstage, to a soundtrack of quasi-Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western-rock, it was immediately apparent that the audience was excited, as well. And with good reason; as soon as the band picked up their instruments, they went nonstop for what ended up being something like three hours (and yes, that’s including the time change). Singer/guitarist/modern-day Beat Poet Craig Finn smiled, grabbed the mic, and muttered/sang the beginning of show-opener “Hornets! Hornets!,” just like he was picking up a conversation from earlier in the day:
“She says, ‘always remember, never to trust me’; ah, she said that the first night that she met me. And she said, ‘there’s gonna come a time when I’m gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get me the highest…”
And then everything exploded in a ball of classic-tinged, smart, sharp-edged rock, the kind that defies any labels beyond the four letters.
Watching The Hold Steady play felt like witnessing The World’s Greatest Bar Band Ever, and I don’t mean that as any kind of a negative — they’re like the band that plays in God‘s local bar, rocking out every night and never missing a single damn note. The guys in the band (veteran guitarist Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka, and drummer Bobby Drake, plus new guitarist Steve Selvidge, previously of Lucero, and keyboardist Dan Neustadt of In Cadeo) just roll on nonchalantly, playing with confident, half-sleepy smiles like that annoying musician friend who could always just pick up any instrument and wail, making it look like it was No Big Deal and that anybody could do it.
I missed being able to watch ex-keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s entertainingly over-the-top rock-out antics, at first, but quickly found that without the ridiculous mustache floating over the keys I was able to focus on the other guys in the band, truly for the first time. Kubler, in particular, bowled me over far more than he did on the previous outing; until I watched him rip through those fiery, retro-sounding leads (mostly the ones from Boys and Girls in America, I should point out), I’d never really given the guy his due as a guitarist. On this night, he was fucking phenomenal.
Then, of course, there’s Craig Finn himself. Like Genevieve Schatz in the previous band, Finn is the undeniable focus of any Hold Steady show, the veritable “face” of the band as a whole. On Saturday at the Warehouse, up on the stage in his striped shirt and librarian-looking glasses, he looked like a fan who got lost on his way to the bathroom and inadvertently ended up under the spotlights with a mic in his hand. Looking like John Cusack’s nerdy Minnesota-bred cousin, he grinned, manic and twitchy, and hopped and danced unabashedly, reveling in the music like the true, dyed-in-the-wool fanboy he is.
All of which is what makes him one of the greatest damn frontmen of our time, in my book — because he’s you, he’s me, he’s everybody out there sweating under the lights with smiles on their faces, heads bobbing along to their favorite band. Like Art Brut’s Eddie Argos, Finn is the Music Nerd-cum-Rock Hero, that rare guy who somehow managed to survive and make the jump from one world to the other and not ever forget why he did it in the first place.
So while the band roared and burned in the background, Finn did his thing, testifying into the microphone like that drunk-yet-entertaining guy who shows up at parties and has the best stories, even if you don’t know anybody involved. By the end of a song, you feel like you’re eavesdropping on the gossip of some cool, cool scene you’re not quite part of. He’s a bona-fide storyteller in the Springsteen vein (assuming Springsteen was trying to kick heroin, that is), with a fully fleshed-out cast of characters inhabiting every song and a relentless command of detail.
Surprisingly, while the band’s ostensibly touring in support of this year’s Heaven Is Whenever, the Steady played only about half the songs from that album, instead drawing from previous releases Stay Positive, Separation Sunday, and — in particular — Boys and Girls in America, plus a surprise off of Almost Killed Me (“Most People Are DJs”) and unreleased track “Criminal Fingers.”
Trawling through the back catalog, though, seemed to be exactly what the crowd was hoping for. Beyond lead single “Hurricane J,” a song to which most people seemed to know the words, the crowd remained cheerfully lukewarm to most of the Heaven tracks, instead going berserk for past classics like “You Can Make Him Like You,” “Stevie Nix,” “Chips Ahoy!,” and “Constructive Summer.” By the time the band got midway through the set, everyone in the crowd was howling along with the intro to “Southtown Girls,” big, beaming grins on their faces and fists in the air.
When it was all over, after The Hold Steady had been coerced back out for an encore, the highlight of which was Separation Sunday‘s “How a Resurrection Really Feels” (no “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” this time, guys?), I was exhausted but jubilant. It felt less like I’d just seen a show and more like I’d taken part in this raw, who-gives-a-shit celebration of everything that’s great about rock-n-roll as an entire musical genre. END