Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Hold Steady @ Bowery Ballroom AND the Music Hall of Williamsburg

The Hold Steady; J. Roddy Walston & The Business
@ Bowery Ballroom
New York, NY - April 17, 2010

The Hold Steady; The Oranges Band
@ Music Hall of Williamsburg
Brooklyn, NY - April 17, 2010

In the most notable one night-two gig cross-water event since Phil Collins played London and Philadelphia at Live Aid, the Hold Steady wrapped up a short tour as they continue to integrate the songs from their upcoming record, Heaven is Whenever. The shows were a study in contrasts, none of it to do with the band (except for having almost completely different setlists). The early Bowery show had a composed, almost subdued audience. When the band came out and Craig began with "Positive Jam" (a first in my experience), the audience was silent, in rapt attention - something that never happens at New York shows anymore. Amazing. The later Music Hall show had a more typical Hold Steady crowd - excessively exuberant in the middle but generally respectful (most mosh pits have guys sticking their middle finger in the air, Hold Steady mosh pits have guys - and gals - using their index finger). Even the types who seem liked yuppie scenesters just-to-be-there were actual damn fans of the band.

The big story of course, besides the new record, is that the Hold Steady are now Franz-less. The character that was the sharply dressed, bewhiskered, accordion playing keyboardist Franz Nicolay (who deliberately stuck out like a dandy version of a sore thumb but fit right in musically and wonderfully at that) is off to other pastures. He had to be replaced by two guys for the live show. Steve Selvidge on guitar (twin guitar attacks - at one point at the Williamsburg show, Craig had a fit of joy on having guitar solo in stereo) and Dan Neudstadt on keyboards and various accoutrement. The lack of an accordion wasn't really noticeable. The replacement of the harmonica with a guitar solo on "Southtown Girls" wasn't bad but it definitely wasn't the same.

When the band (and/or Vagrant) decided to release news of the new album, they said it would be a less hooky and sing-a-long affair. Then they promptly leaked 3 songs, two of which are not just hooky and sing-a-long but are produced slickly enough to qualify as pop songs - "Hurricane J" and "The Weekenders". The latter number - a sequel to "Chips Ahoy" as Craig pointed out at the Bowery show - is already an instant classic that belongs in the canon. And the former isn't too shabby either. The production value was striking and a little much upon first listen but "Hurricane J" is a terrific song and as expected, it - and "The Weekenders" - and the straight up old time rocker "Rock Problems" - all kill live. The shows also included other new songs from Heaven is Whenever - and these are the ones that are a little less insta-rock, and a little more sit-and-listen, namely "A Slight Discomfort" (heard at Bowery) and "Barely Breathing", "The Sweet Part of the City", and "We Can Get Together" (heard at MHOW).

It cannot be promised that all of Heaven is Whenever will be what someone like me wants it to be, but there is nothing to indicate so far - and certainly nothing in the continued caliber of the live show to indicate - that the Hold Steady are going to be knocked from their perch any time soon.

I caught the last few songs of the J. Roddy set at the Bowery and one day The Business will have to decide if they will be one of those one-note bands (a la AC/DC and the Ramones) or shock the world and change up their sound. In the case of their Lynyrd Skynyrd style-rock either choice wouldn't be a bad one. I will forever associate them with having CALLED IT. Seeing them at a Merc show, saying to myself "Hey these guys could open for the Hold Steady" and turn my head and see Craig Finn rocking out to 'em.

The Oranges Band have been around ten years but I have never heard of them. They are at times hard driving and at times a little more laid back (though not much). They are mature, substantive, and professional but also full of life and piss and vinegar. In other words, if I had seen them play somewhere small some time ago, I'd have said "Hey these guys could open for the Hold Steady" and I'd have CALLED IT AGAIN!

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