I probably couldn't be more in the bag for The Hold Steady. Lead singer Craig Finn grew up not far from me in the Minneapolis suburbs and he, like I, favors Twins hats, plaid shirts and glasses. His band's songs map the Twin Cities with frequent references to landmarks both obvious and obscure. And they feature a muscular rock sound, devoid of frills or frivolous effects, that had the 18-and-up crowd at the Orpheum's Stage Door theater pumping its fists and hopping up and down in time with Finn's stage antics Friday night. I wasn't alone in my appreciation for one of last year's most critically-acclaimed bands.
Guitarist Tad Kubler, a Janesville native, opened the set with the riff from "Stuck Between Stations," the first track off the much-heralded Boys and Girls in America. The lyrics to that song, like many of the band's tunes, are poetic and play off the Boys and Girls theme, lifted from Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The second tune, "The Swish," (from The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me) is no different in its literary qualities, as Finn sings "Shoes and socks, baby, socks and shoes. We spent the night last night in Newport News. This chick she looked just like Elizabeth Shue. We got bruised."
Finn has been accused of shouting testimony to his listeners, rather than singing, and he often gestures and rants as he moves around the stage. But when he attempted quieter fare, reserved for the start of the encore, he was successful in not only hushing his raucous fans, but also providing some contrast to the full-tilt rock for which his band is known. "Citrus," during which Kubler employed his acoustic guitar, is like a lot of Hold Steady tunes that feature young people grappling with drugs and sex and how religion fits in. He finishes the song with the line "Lost in fog and love and faithless fear, I've had kisses that make Judas seem sincere."
But most of the crowd was there to celebrate the end of the school year, not engage in any kind of examination of poetry. The Stage Door's floor was jammed with kids in t-shirts and shorts and very few of the "hood rats" and street punks that populate the Hold Steady's songs. Between bands, some were overheard kvetching about the size of the venue and, indeed, craigslist was full of desperate pleas for tickets over the last couple weeks. The room also suffered from a lacking light set-up, which kept Finn in darkness while he was at the mic.
Cincinatti's Heartless Bastards, second on the bill, impressed with their soulful three-piece sound, led by lead singer and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom's smoky voice. Wennerstrom got the largely-male crowd's attention with her handling of a hollow-body Les Paul guitar, sometimes while simultaneously playing organ.
Openers The Red Eyed Legends were less impressive, causing one to wonder why shows like this don't feature a local band who would benefit from access to a wider audience. Anything the Legends did Friday night, bands like the Motorz or Shazy Hade could do much, much better.