The Hold Steady have been at it for 19 years now. Upon the demise of Minneapolis underground punk rock band Lifter Puller, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler moved to Brooklyn and formed The Hold Steady in 2003. But unlike most of the bands who were playing around and about Williamsburg at the time—instead of recycling The Velvets and Television—The Hold Steady modeled themselves after the sounds of Thin Lizzy, Cheap Trick and of course early day Springsteen.
Three of the four founding members of the band, Finn and Kubler along with bassist, Galin Polivka, have had numerous ups and downs over the years but nonetheless have remained steady throughout. Drummer Bobby Drake and keyboardist Franz Nicolay joined the band in 2005, just in time for their sophomore Separation Sunday LP. Nicolay would unfortunately leave in 2010 with the band then adding Memphis guitarist Steve Selvidge to fill the void. With the addition of Selvidge, the guitar interplay between him and Kubler added a new dimension to THS which was quite a lot of fun to experience. However, I will say it out loud, I for one missed the keyboards during the years where Franz was on hiatus from the band.
But alas, Nicolay rejoined the band in 2016 and in my humble opinion, the six piece Hold Steady has never sounded better. With the two guitars (does anyone really count Finn as a guitarist?) and keyboards, the band sounds fuller and significantly tighter than ever. 2016 also brought about the new tour concept which the band initiated in Chicago and Brooklyn with the three and four night residencies in each city. Chicago’s “Chicago Seemed Wired Last Night” and Brooklyn’s “Massive Nights” have become the model for the band to set up shop in a given city for a designated stretch of time and do abbreviated residencies. In effect, the band now has their fans travel to them rather than being on the road traversing from city to city for extended touring. This model has worked quite well for them.
Which brings me to last Thursday night at Brooklyn Bowl, home to Massive Nights ever since its inception in 2016. With a rotating cast of opening acts which are rarely announced much more than a week before the show dates, this year’s residency had Laura Stevenson on Wednesday 11/30, Proper. on Thursday 12/1, Gladie on Friday 12/2 and The Smiths Tribute Band on Saturday 12/3.
Night Two of Massive Nights started off with Brooklyn’s own Proper. I unfortunately arrived after their set was already half over but what I heard, I liked. Knowing very little about the band prior to seeing them, I was excited to hear them and get to know them. Particular highlights were the closer of their set, “A$AP Rocky Type Beat” and “Fucking Disgusting” both from 2019’s I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better. They will definitely be a band I keep an ear out for in the future.
In years past The Hold Steady would take the stage to the backdrop intro music of Andy Williams’s “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of Year.” In addition to this being everyone’s grandmother’s favorite holiday classic, it also is a perfect slogan for Massive Nights because to many of the THS pilgrims, these four nights at Brooklyn Bowl truly do encapsulate the holidays.
The band opened things up on Thursday with a rousing version of “Denver Haircut,” the opening cut off of 2019’s masterful Thrashing Thru The Passion, which happens to be the first studio album to include all six of the current members of the band. Without missing a beat, frontman Finn and the rest of THS barreled their way through “Barfruit Blues,” “Magazines,” and “You Can Make Him Like You” before they finally took a moment to breathe. At this point saxophonist Stuart Bogie joined them on stage for “Separate Vacations,” an extra track from the super deluxe version of Heaven Can Wait.
As I’ve said already, this current six piece version of The Hold Steady sounds as good as any version of the band has ever sounded. The back and forth interplay on guitar between Kubler and Selvidge pushes each of these already masterful fret workers to heights they might never reach if they were merely playing by themselves. Added on top of that Nicolay’s festive meandering keyboard work along with the outstanding rhythm section of Drake and Polivka on drums and bass respectively and you have what comes across as a band that has more than hit its stride. A band that is in peak form and knows it. Each knowing what the other is going to do before they do it. And most importantly, each knowing exactly where the ever unpredictable Craig Finn is going to take them. This was so clear and evident throughout the ever rising emotions of Thursday’s set.
We would get another dozen or so songs before the night was over and with each successive tune the energy kept mounting and mounting. With Kubler’s guitar strum, followed by Nicolay’s piano riff and finally Bobby Drake’s pounding kick drum intro to “Constructive Summer” pushing Finn into the opening lyric of “Me and my friends are like the drums on “Lust for Life?” the crowd was more than ready for the exuberance which was to follow. A song which encapsulates the death of the American Dream as well as anything much more renowned writers have put to paper, the band rocked as hard as ever with its percussive backbeat and anthemic chorus of “we’re gonna build something, THIS SUMMER” to which the crowd, of course sang each and every word. The feeling of triumph which one gets from hearing this song in all its majesty is almost worth the price of admission alone. But then Finn sings “I tried to believe all the things that you said, But my friends that aren’t dying are already dead” and you’re back to reality. A reality where Finn then sheds a little hope on us with the almost perfect lines:
Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer
I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher
Getting older makes it harder to remember we are our only saviors
We’re gonna build something, this summer
One of Finn’s and THS greatest attributes is to take hold of the crowd and carry them along on the climb up the mountain of what is a Hold Steady show. They manage to start the hike at what appears to be an already insurmountable altitude yet as the show and set progresses the energy and heights achieved just get higher and higher. On Thursday, by the time Finn kicked the band into the trifecta of “Sequestered In Memphis” followed by “Chips Ahoy!” and “Banging Camp” (once again joined onstage by Stuart Bogie) you’d feel like any other band was gearing up for that final push where the show was about to hit its crescendo just before its finale. Au contraire, mon frère. These guys were just getting started.
Video from Night Three
As the old saying goes, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” you get the same feeling when experiencing a Massive Nights show with THS. Make no mistake, they are a party band. The lyrics to their songs are rife with stories of excess and the tattered ruins of that very same excess. And the band itself is a testament to the harrowing results of said indulgences with their brief hiatus back in the early to mid teens a direct result of Kubler’s brush with pancreatitis. And despite their acts having cleaned up some over the years, they are still very much that party band. They still revel in whipping their fans into a frenzy, they still exalt with the (oft-times very lubricated) audience screaming back specific lyrics about overdoing it. But that’s all part of the act, an act to which the band has perfected down to a “T.” So when you get to the point in the show and all of a sudden it’s snowing confetti and everyone around you is singing and dancing and hugging, it’s not surprising if one is taken back to an earlier place and time. A time when you were out with your friends, listening to your favorite bar band on a Saturday night and all was good in the world. That’s the kind of feeling that Massive Nights is all about.
Scroll down for setlist, pics of the show (photos by Ray Rusinak)
Setlist: Denver Haircut, Barfruit Blues, Magazines, You Can Make Him Like You, Separate Vacations, Entitlement Crew, SIXERS, Sequestered In Memphis, Chips Ahoy!, Banging Camp, Lord I’m Discouraged, The Weekenders, Spices, Stuck Between Stations, Star 18, Don’t Let Me Explode, Constructive Summer, Hot Soft Light, Hostile Mass, Your Little Hoodrat Friend, Slapped Actress Encore: Citrus, Modesto Is Not That Sweet, Stay Positive, Killer Parties
THE HOLD STEADY