There’s an old baseball superstition that you never talk about it when the pitcher has a no-hitter going, so it’s probably crass to mention how insanely great the new Hold Steady songs are. These guys have only been making records for what, six years now, and they’ve made five of the best albums released in that timespan – who gets on a roll like that? It’s like they’ve already had the Replacements’ career twice. To preview the new tunes from their upcoming Heaven Is Whenever, while also celebrating Record Store Day, the Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis bar band played a double-shot of Saturday night shows in two different New York ‘hoods, hitting enough massive highs to reward fans who were drunk, insane or devoted enough to make the mad dash across the Williamsburg Bridge to catch both. Some of us just can’t get enough rock & roll problems in one night.
“We’re going to start this the only way we know how,” singer/strummer/splutterer Craig Finn announced taking the stage at Bowery Ballroom, kicking the night off with “Positive Jam.” It was a fittingly festive introduction to the revamped band – new keyboardist Dan Neustadt is subtler than the departed Franz Nicolay (he sits down, for one thing). New guitarist Steve Selvidge can actually keep up with Tad Kubler, pulling off the Thin Lizzy-style twin-guitar leads this band probably always dreamed of, over the punk rhythm section of Bobby Drake and Galen Polivka. The typically manic Hold Steady fans screamed along with every word, beating Finn to his own punch lines on the always-a-tearjerker “How a Resurrection Really Feels.” Both shows crunched surefire crowd-flatteners like “You Can Make Him Like You,” “Stuck Between Stations,” “Slapped Actress” and “Sequestered In Memphis.” They shut down Music Hall of Williamsburg nearly five hours after they started at Bowery, high as hell and shivering and smashed, stretching out “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” with a lilting Hendrix-gone-soukous guitar interlude from Kubler.
But the new songs were the main attraction, doled out over the course of both sets. “The Sweet Part of the City” rambles like Side Two of Exile on Main Street filtered through early Van Morrison and (no, really) Jefferson Starship’s “Find Your Way Back.” “Barely Breathing” dishes about Eighties hardcore bands getting religion and handing out Hare Krishna pamphlets; Kubler ended it with the intro to “Stairway to Heaven.” The Heaven Is Whenever quasi-title-track is now titled “We Can Get Together,” which might be one Jefferson Starship reference too many, but remains an emotional ballad of sitting on the floor with a punk rock girl who wants to play you her Hüsker Dü and Heavenly records. “Soft in the Center,” with its big-brotherly lyric (“You can’t get every girl / You get the ones you love the best”), deserves to get handed off to some struggling Nashville singer in time to become the country smash of summer 2011. Stranger things have happened, right?
With all these great new songs from both the Hold Steady and LCD Soundsystem, the summer of 2010 is shaping up to be a historic peak for 40-ish Irish dudes yelling about drunk girls. But at the Bowery, when when Craig Finn yelped, “I just can’t sympathize with your rock & roll problems,” he had to be kidding. The Hold Steady are our rock & roll problems. And if these two shows are any indication, the problems are just getting critical.