The Hold Steady mixes well with alcohol — after all they have been labeled “America’s bar band” by critics and fans — so pairing the Brooklyn quintet with Southern Comfort for a free concert at The Crocodile Thursday night was a no-brainer.
The Kentucky-based booze sponsored the invite-only event that was billed as a show where The Hold Steady would play a set filled with covers of songs by their influences. In theory this is a recipe for a great rock cocktail, but instead of getting a musical blend of liquor and a mixer the show was more like a straight shot of The Hold Steady sans chaser. Only four of the 20 or so songs in the band’s set were covers, which was a little disappointing, but it is tough to complain considering the show was free.
For those unfamiliar, if you take Bruce Springsteen, mix in The Replacements and add a little bit of Husker Du’s edge you’re getting close to The Hold Steady’s sound. The band's songs feature themes of religion, partying, love, and more partying. Singer Craig Finn’s near cinematic songs are vibrant, lively, and filled with compelling characters. Though calling Finn a singer is a stretch considering he doesn’t really sing. He’s a talk-singer (not a sing-talker, there’s a slight difference) and that style of vocal delivery puts an emphasis on the lyrics, which makes each song feel like a grand narrative told by Finn, not a song delivered by your typical bar band.
Since a good bar band knows its fair share of cover songs, what covers did America’s bar band break out during its 90-minute set? The first was ZZ Top’s “Master of Sparks,” from the seminal Texas band’s 1976 album Tres Hombres. It was an odd choice given how well The Hold Steady wears its influences on its sleeve, and the little old band from Texas is not an obvious influence. Unfortunately, the cover fell flat and was the worst song of an otherwise solid set. Finn said it was the first time the band had performed that song, and given its execution hopefully they will practice it some more before playing it again.
The band fared better with Steve Earle’s “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” another interesting choice. The Hold Steady’s treatment of Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come” had more of a “Sweet Home Alabama” feel than the original with its heavy showcasing of keyboardist Franz Nicloay. The Minutemen’s “History Lesson (Part II),” a song the band has tackled a few times before, was the strongest cover of the show. The band sound-checked Bon Jovi’s “Living In Sin” and Finn read the lyrics off his iPhone, but the song didn’t make the set list.
Along with talk-singing Finn’s other trademark is his grandiose gesticulation, and throughout the night the highly animated Finn nearly did more talking with his hands than with his mouth. The way he dorkily dances and moves along with the infectious perma-grin that never leaves his face while on stage makes Finn look like a balding, sweaty rock ‘n’ roll Muppet. The rest of the band — Nicloay, guitarist Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka, and drummer Bobby Drake — matches Finn’s enthusiasm, which is why The Hold Steady are so much fun live.
Other than the covers the group’s set was heavy on material from last year’s Stay Positive. The highlight was “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” with its refrain about “excuses and half-truths and fortified wine” and Kubler’s impressive work on a double-necked guitar. Fan favorites such as “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” “Chips Ahoy,” and “Stuck Between Stations” made appearances as well. Also showing up were two new songs, both of which kept with The Hold Steady tradition of singalong choruses with tales involving love and alcohol (one of the songs prominently mentioned mojitos).
If you were one of the lucky few hundred who got into the show you were treated to free drink tickets and handed sunglasses upon entrance. The drink tickets were a nice touch but you’d better like the sweetness of Southern Comfort because that was the only option at the bar. The Crocodile was drenched in black lights, which created a cool effect when you put on your shades. Apparently wearing sunglasses indoors at night is always cool.
To get into the show attendees had to either text message SoCo for a ticket code to show at the door, or register for tickets through Facebook. The viral marketing campaign worked well (I gave SoCo my cell phone number, something I never do) but unfortunately I heard from many people through my Twitter account who submitted their info and weren’t able to get tickets. Within 30 minutes of the doors opening the club was at capacity, leaving about 50 fans waiting outside for 90 minutes to find out whether the 150 people on the VIP list would show up. Hopefully the next time a major alcohol company decides to put on a free show they’ll choose a bigger venue and a better beverage to promote.
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