For a band that works as hard as the Hold Steady – both on the road and in the studio, where the beer-friendly indie outfit has produced five albums in the past seven years – taking four and a half months off from touring constitutes an extended vacation. But the band was back in business Wednesday at Milwaukee's Turner Hall, commencing a string of fall concert dates that will include a break in September, when they begin writing their sixth record.
There were no new songs in Wednesday's set list – not even lead singer Craig Finn's forthcoming solo album got a preview. Instead, the band drew evenly from its previous records, along with some non-album, in-concert favorites like "You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to the Dance With)" and "Girls Like Status." But while the concert was essentially a rundown of greatest hits, the Hold Steady confidently presented itself as a band born again in the wake of keyboardist Franz Nicolay's departure and the lukewarm reaction to 2010's Heaven Is Whenever.
Ever since Nicolay's exit, the Hold Steady has struggled to find a new identity. Nicolay brought so much to the band in terms of sound and showmanship, and the Hold Steady has tried to fill that gaping hole with supplemental musicians that made the band sound busier, not better. For this tour, the Hold Steady is back to being a five-piece, with former Lucero guitarist Steve Selvidge now firmly entrenched as a complement to the group's main guitar player, Tad Kubler. On songs like "South Town Girls" and the Zeppelin-esque slide-guitar showcase "The Sweet Part of the City," Kubler and Selvidge played off each better than ever before, trading off solos and interlocking beautifully on the band's trademark caterwauling riffs. Finally, those absent Nicolay piano flourishes were no longer missed.
If the guitar is now comfortably at the center of the Hold Steady's current live sound, the person dancing, preening and wildly gesticulating over it remains as much his old self as ever. Finn stands just a few feet to the right of Kubler on stage, but the two men might as well be a continent apart in terms of stage presence. While Kubler plays the ultra-cool guitarist-with-mystique role, swaying solidly back and forth in his sunglasses and fitted black shirt and jeans, Finn is all sweat stains and every-dude ebullience, peering deep into a sea of intoxicated bros drunk on Miller High Life and the anthemic uplift of "Massive Nights" and "Chips Ahoy!" like a mad fisherman taunting a school of sharks.
In another refreshing break with the band's past, the Hold Steady decided to forgo the traditional set-closer "Killer Parties" – and Finn's usual "There's so much joy in what we do up here!" speech – and instead end with hardcore-scene ode "Stay Positive." Finn no doubt is still grateful to be performing for his loyal fans, but Wednesday's tour launch showed that he's poised to move beyond the Hold Steady's same old remembrances and tributes to the past – and toward something new and hopefully exciting just over the horizon.
"Hot Soft Light
"Multitude of Casualties"
"You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to the Dance With)"
"The Sweet Part of the City"
"You Can Make Him Like You"
"Stuck Between Stations"
"Girls Like Status
"Sequestered in Memphis"
"Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night"
"Your Little Hoodrat Friend"
"South Town Girls"
Untitled "rare" song