The Hold Steady Celebrate 20 Years of Killer Parties in Brooklyn Anniversary Show
The Hold Steady celebrated their 20th anniversary on Saturday night with a hometown blowout in Brooklyn. It was a fittingly rowdy birthday bash for these guys. The Hold Steady might have started as Brooklyn’s finest bar band, dabbling in Last Waltz cosplay when they were barely into their thirties. But by now, they’ve been doing it even longer than The Band circa The Last Waltz. This band loves to revel in rock & roll rituals and fetishize the details, so they did this occasion right. It was exactly two decades after their first show, in the same room—Northsix back then, now Music Hall of Williamsburg.
The Hold Steady started up in the early-2000s New York scene of the Meet Me in the Bathroom era, Midwest boys in the big city. They cleverly styled themselves as old-school rockers, flying the flannel to contrast with their skinny-tie dance-punk peers. They were jailbreaking with Thin Lizzy and junglelanding with Bruce when everyone else wanted to reinvent the Gang of Four wheel.
Nobody could have predicted they’d have a run like this, let alone for 20 years. But their self-conscious quasi-ironic version of a bar band has aged into the real thing, to the point where they’re road veterans who don’t need to tour because their fans will travel and show up for their curated residencies. By now, they’re one of the most dependably great New York bands ever, sitting on a pile of this century’s toughest rock & roll songs.
The whole gang was on fire Saturday night—singer/splutterer Craig Finn, guitar hero Tad Kubler, keyboard song-and-dance man Franz Nicolay, bass warrior Galen Polivka, Memphis guitar monster Steve Selvidge, and drummer Bobby Drake, who Finn called “our heart and soul.” They took the stage to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” (“it was 20 years ago today”). Their first gig was opening for Steve Koester, so they returned the favor by bringing back Koester to open this one with his band Two Dark Birds. As Craig Finn said early on, “So many things coming full circle tonight, and all these friendships still intact.”
The Hold Steady are definitely the band I’ve seen the most times in my life—not sure how many shows, because I stopped counting after the first 50, and that was ten years ago. But they became my favorite band the first night I saw them (1/31/04, Northsix, opening for Les Savy Fav, just another Saturday night) and they were even better at this show. They did every song from their classic 2004 debut The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, a record so good it still triggers “how is this possible?” pheromones after thousands of listens. They did “Knuckles,” the first song they ever wrote. And they dipped into their earliest B-sides and rare fan faves, like “Milkcrate Mosh,” “Hot Fries” and “Modesto Is Not That Sweet.”
Best of all, they dug up the long-lost “Curves and Nerves,” one of my personal faves—finally, my first time hearing it live in 19 years of Hold Steady shows. (Why would any band NOT play this song?) It always hits home as the sad tale of Holly, who went to Hollywood but ended up starring in sleazy straight-to-video movies with titles like North Dallas Foursome and Revenge of the Pervs. But it’s about the same old rock & roll problems, especially the one about nobody listening to you. In the funniest line, Finn fesses up to every musician’s worst nightmare: “Mouths and hands, baby, hand to mouth / Soooo many shows where nobody comes out.”
The Hold Steady are at their peak as a live band, which nobody would’ve predicted a few years ago, when it seemed like they were winding down. When they picked back up in 2016, instead of touring, they started playing multi-night residencies in destination cities: “Massive Nights” in Brooklyn every winter, “The Weekender” in London every spring. In the past couple years, they’ve done these residencies in Toronto, Melbourne, L.A., Nashville. And as Twin Cities loyalists, they’ve naturally done it at First Avenue in Minneapolis. They’ve got a real corker this summer in Chicago, with the dream bill of the Mountain Goats and Dillinger Four.
They’ve almost accidentally invented a new kind of model for how to keep going as a sustainable rock band, rethinking old ways of releasing music and playing live. It seems like the wave of the future—if a band has the following to get away with this. Social media means their fans now have ways to congregate that nobody could have imagined in early 2003, back when the most cutting of edges was Craig Finn’s Friendster profile, where he described his interests as “people who think New Wave really sucks.”
It was funny to hear them on Saturday night playing so many songs about the NYC hipster flame wars of 2003, for an audience mostly too young to get their Interpol jokes. (Not a lot of Misshapes or Berliniamsburg regulars in the crowd.) Before “Most People Are DJs,” Finn tried to explain, “There were a LOT of fucking DJs.” But the song’s hair-raising guitar freakouts don’t need any explanation at all. In an odd way, LCD Soundsystem are their closest kindred spirits—in 2003, they might have come on like theoretically opposite NYC bands, but they share the same romantic vision of diehard fandom as a lifelong groove. They both do Brooklyn residencies every December, a mile apart, and plenty of fans travel from out of town to catch both bands the same weekend. By now, they seem like secret sharers of the dream of the 2000s.
The Hold Steady also busted out “Sideways Skull,” from their excellent new album The Price of Progress, which drops March 31 on their own Positive Jams label. They made it with longtime producer Josh Kaufman, who’s also done Finn’s solo albums. (My faves are the 2017 We All Want The Same Things and last year’s A Legacy of Rentals.) Kaufman has collaborated with both Bob Weir and Taylor Swift (that’s his harmonica on “Betty” and mandolin on “Cowboy Like Me”), two artists who both have weirdly deep affinities with the Hold Steady. Hell, “Betty” is the closest Taylor has come to her own Hold Steady song.
But they made the anniversary show a celebration of their shared history, along with their harder-than-hardcore community of fans. Their original drummer Judd Counsell was in the house; so was Tim Harrington from Les Savy Fav, who adopted the Hold Steady as openers and put out their first records. As Finn said, “They made us look kinda cool—like a bar band that had art-school friends.” The previous night, they went to the New York Islanders game, where the Islanders presented them with 20th-anniversary team jerseys—a fitting rock/hockey nexus for a band with Minnesota roots. They blew out the anniversary party with their original show-stopper “Killer Parties”—it’s no insult to say it’s still their best song, since it’d be any band’s best song. Their exit music: Television’s “Elevation,” a tribute to Tom Verlaine, who died that day.
The whole night was an emotional knockout, even by the Hold Steady’s standards. It was a cathartic celebration of long-haul perseverance and fellowship. One of the strange highlights: “Sweet Payne,” a deep cut from their debut that sounds like Joe Walsh nodding off at the bus stop, after his Maserati got towed. It’s a satire of punk idealism that was laugh-out-loud funny at the time. “I always dream about a unified scene,” Finn announces, like a delusional fanzine dude. “Hey, there’s James King and there’s King James and that’s James Dean / At a table in the corner of my unified scene.” But on this night, it didn’t sound like a punch line at all—more like a benediction. The Hold Steady lived up to that spirit all night, as they have for two decades. Here’s to their next twenty years.
“Curves and Nerves”
“Stuck Between Stations”
“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came To The Dance With)”
“Sequestered In Memphis”
“Modesto Is Not That Sweet”
“Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
“Most People Are DJs”