The Hold Steady played their first headlining gig in Philadelphia in quite awhile at the Trocadero. Recent trips through the city saw them opening for Sonic Youth and Drive-By Truckers as well as a terrific bill with Devo at Festival Pier. It was also their first show in Philly since the departure of long-term keyboardist Franz Nicolay. I for one didn’t miss him all that much. They’ve got Dan Nuestadt of the World Inferno Society playing keyboards on this tour and he fills out their sound just fine without resorting to any of Nicolay’s hammy stage moves. Also on board for the first time is former Lucero guitarist Steve Selvidge. I can see why the band decided to beef up their guitar sound – Tad Kubler is a terrific musician, but Craig Finn’s guitar hangs from his neck untouched more than it is actually played. Selvidge enables them to bring the more anthemic sound of their latter records to the stage in all their widescreen, guitar-god glory.
And bring it they did in a 100-minute set that was a study in passion, intensity and the power of a great riff. The band has released five albums over the last seven years and they have built a catalog of insanely catchy songs all tied to Finn’s clever but emotionally direct lyrics. It’s been some time since I’ve seen a band shotgun great song after great song like the Hold Steady did for their first 45 minutes on stage. It’s a testament to just how solid their records are that there was never that inevitable “bathroom break” moment that many band’s seem to drop in their sets. Neither band nor audience got a breather.
Somewhere along the Finn started taking singing lessons and it shows. His delivery is smoother and just plain more musical than it’s ever been before. And while he still looks the part of a computer programmer dropped in front a rock band, his actual stage presence has developed as well. He works the crowd more assuredly than he has in the past and they ate it up. These are songs built for singing and clapping along and the sold out crowd was in the palm of his hand all night.
There was, however, an extremely awkward moment towards the end of the show. While the band went into an extended guitar break during “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” a seemingly inebriated and way too over zealous fan managed to crawl on stage. Rather than allow the bouncers to escort him off he fought vehemently not to leave, eventually pulling at the band’s equipment before getting cold-cocked and dragged from the stage. I was disappointed in the band’s obliviousness to what was going on right in front of them. The three guitarists were huddled together and never once looked up. Finn sheepishly acknowledged that he wasn’t sure what had happened before returning to their “regularly scheduled program.” The situation probably could have been suffused without the violence if the band had stepped in rather than remain aloof. It was an ugly moment on an otherwise joyous night.
Sal Cannestra is a New York City native who relocated to Philadelphia in 2006. He has been writing about rock’n’roll music since 1984 for various publications. He also plays in the bands The Gerunds (www.thegerunds.com) and The Thirteen (www.myspace.com/thethirteenphilly)