The Hold Steady at Musikfest Cafe
Words and Photos by Alex Kreutzer
When Craig Finn of The Hold Steady tells the crowd in Bethlehem, “I wouldn’t lie to you,” you almost believe him. Then, of course, he crushes your dreams and admits, “Well, I would lie to you. But I’m not lying to you right now.” All of this is delivered to you through a wry smile and with a hint (or more) of sarcasm, much like the music of The Hold Steady. Fortunately, despite whatever Finn may tell you, there is sincerity behind both the music and the delivery.
Fans of The Hold Steady are passionate; the challenging lyrics and messages of the band’s songs encourage deeper exploration than many casual listeners are willing to commit to, but those who succumb and give their attention to the music are rewarded for their efforts. It’s hard to get through a single song by the band without hearing a line that blows you away. (My most recent favorite, from the song “First Night”:
“On that first night / She slept like she’d never been scared.”
This isn’t to say The Hold Steady is inaccessible, artsy, stuffy, or pretentious at all – just that there is more going on here than the straightforward in-your-face guitar rock of the band may give away. And The Hold Steady is a rock band – a fun, loud, multiple-cans-of-Bud-set-up-for-each-band-member-before-the-show, kickass rock band.
The Musikfest Cafe in Bethlehem was a great venue for The Hold Steady – large enough to comfortably fit the crowd (standing-room-only were the only tickets available for the lower level), and small enough to feel intimate and make the place feel full. If you haven’t been to this venue yet, keep your eye out for an act you’d like to see and get there. No seat in the place is more than 60 feet from the stage, drink prices are reasonable, and the sound is generally quite good.
The opening band, Philly-based Purling Hiss, was a good warm up for the evening. The trio’s high-energy, lo-fi sound was young and rough, but tight, featuring stellar guitar playing. (Hints of Dinosaur Jr., anyone?)
Once The Hold Steady took the stage, Craig Finn commanded the attention of the crowd. It’s hard to read any press on the band without seeing a reference or comparison to Springsteen, but Finn’s delivery always echoed Lou Reed’s speaking/ranting voice to my ear. (In fact, his songwriting reminds me of Reed as well, though Finn is certainly less cynical.) This most recent incarnation of the band, featuring a 2 ½ guitar attack and no keyboards definitely ramps up the raw factor. (“2 ½ guitars” because the general consensus in the crowd is that Finn’s guitar is almost more of a prop to keep him anchored and less spastic in the early part of a show than it is a key instrument.) Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge on guitar were solid through the whole night – pushing out mostly straight overdriven chords and leads, though occasionally bringing different textures to the sound. In between songs Finn broke into random conversation with audience members – another benefit of the small venue format.
The band steamrolled through a two-hour set combining both new and old tunes. After opening with “Positive Jam,” from 2004’s Almost Killed Me, the band mixed it up with a range of songs, including the brand new “Records and Tapes” and the semi-radio-hit “Sequestered in Memphis.”
At this point Finn turned over the mic to a young man from the crowd who quickly dropped to his knees and proposed to his girlfriend on stage. Beer-and-sweat-soaked Hallmark moment? Check.
After closing the set with “Chips Ahoy!” the band returned for a three-song encore of “Massive Nights,” “Stay Positive,” and “How a Resurrection Really Feels.”
As the show finished, the crowd left happy and satisfied. Nobody felt like they had been lied to, and in fact, we may have all gotten at least a little bit of truth that night, courtesy of The Hold Steady.