I was admittedly way late to The Hold Steady party. I’m not talking about Wednesday night’s performance at The Horseshoe Tavern, the first of four consecutive nights the band is playing at the storied venue, but to them as a whole. I remember being really impressed the first time I saw them live at TURF in 2016, and that I made a mental note to check out more from the band when I had time. Suffice it to say, my mental notepad ain’t got nothing compared to a real pen and paper.
For their 70th birthday, The Horseshoe hosted a few four-night runs featuring artists with thick song catalogues. Guys like Billy Bragg and long-time favourites 54.40 were digging into the archives to find the rarely (or never) played gems that lifelong fans dream of hearing live. The Hold Steady’s mini-residency will likely be no different when all is said and done. Night one was dedicated to a play through of 2008’s Stay Positive album, which for a few fans I talked to (one chap flew in from the UK specifically for these gigs), was a dream come true in of itself, so there was a palpable energy of excitement buzzing throughout the place from the moment the doors opened.
To get things rolling, Weakened Friends, a 3-piece from Portland Maine comprised of vocalist/guitarist Sonia Sturino, bassist Annie Hoffman, and drummer Cam Jones, punched the energy up a few more notches. The band plays angst-filled noisy rock songs that surge with immediacy. Their infectious hooks pulled in an impressive crowd out front of the stage that head-bopped along. Check out “Miserable” and “Hate Mail”.
The Hold Steady are a 6-piece. Across the front of the Shoe stage, almost elbow to elbow, is Franz Nicolay on keyboard, Steve Selvidge on guitar, front-man Craig Finn on guitar and vocals, and Tad Kubler on guitar. Tucked in behind is Galen Polivka on bass, and Bobby Drake on drums. It’s tight enough fit for a smaller, stationary band and these guys like to move around. Yet they somehow move around up there and swing guitars without taking each other out. They know each other well and clearly love to play together, sharing laughs and funny moments amongst themselves while playing throughout the set.
What wasn’t apparent to me from a grassy seat too far back at the TURF music festival, was the magnetism of Craig Finn. Tonight, I’m at the front of the stage and cannot keep my eyes off of him though I don’t know the words he narrates, rather than sings, to the audience. There’s a familiarity to him that I can’t quite place at first until about halfway through the set when it hits me like a ton of bricks. Finn’s narrative story-telling style. The way he backs off the mic but continues to mouth words to the audience. His body gestures and hand actioning of lyrics. The locked-on eye contact he makes with different fans throughout the night. The familiarity I’m feeling comes from having seen, many times, a band-front man that did these same things. Our gone too soon poet laureate Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. I don’t know if others have compared Finn to Downie before, but for me there is no question. And with that realization, I’m fully invested. Not just in this night, but in this band.
As promised, The Hold Steady perform Stay Positive in album order and even include the three extra CD bonus tracks “Ask Her For Adderall”, “Two Handed Handshake” which Finn introduces as a song about he and his sister’s anticipation of the obligatory handshake offered during church services, and drugs, as well as “Cheyene Sunrise”. The band also plays “Confusion in the Marketplace” for the first time ever live. One of many special moments of a special night. They end with a few barnburners including “Your Hoodrat Friend”, and “Killer Parties” during the encore.
The Hold Steady are gracious guys. And funny too. Finn thanks Toronto for their support historically and especially during the night while the rest of the band works on spinning the mini disco balls overhead with outstretched guitars or whatever else will reach. The room laps it up. I lap it up and vow this time check out the band’s discography and to never miss them when in town. This time I wrote it down.
Words and Photos by Dave MacIntyre
The Hold Steady