Friday, July 9, 2010
The Hold Steady: Live at the Slowdown in Omaha
For everyone you've ever heard say “music is my life,” they're really making too big a deal about it. Or maybe I've just heard too many people tell me that, or something like that, but not be able to rattle off a few of their favorite bands, instead giving me a half-assed “I like a little bit of everything.” This was one of those questions I threw out to potential applicants when I was hiring people for music staff a couple of years ago and if I got that, I had to throw it out (because really, to be on music staff and to think that your opinion needs to be shared with the rest of the radio station requires a high degree of snobbery, and honestly, I think that's what's contributed to KJHK's downfall: lack of snobbery! Delivering snobbery without alienating people, that's the trick though). The people who are serious about their shit have their top five in their head and while it may change from day to day, it's the sort of thing they mull over on the memo pad in their brain. For instance, on any given day the Hold Steady ran either #2 or #3 on my favorite bands list, depending on the mood, and a lot of this has to do with the times I've caught their tremendous live show. First was in December of 2006 when they were touring Boys and Girls in America, a goddamned triumphant show that made me realize why I love music and trumped both the Arcade Fire and Unicorns shows which had held the top spot for a few years. Then I saw them at the Granada a year or so later and it sucked due to a terrible mix and well, just the Granada being a generally terrible venue to see music. Next were the three times I saw them over two days in Austin in 2009, each show better than the last and culminating in what is easily the greatest display of live music I've ever witnessed via their showcase show at the Mohawk. I didn't even plan on going to that show. Surely there was some IT band I hadn't seen that I wanted to see but something clicked in my brain: Why the hell am I not going to see the Hold Steady at the Mohawk? This would be on the level of skipping Guided by Voices, and I drifted over to the Mohawk, forced my way past some ambivalent, folded-armed hipsters and proceeded to have a religious experience. If Bob Pollard is my God, Craig Finn is my Jesus. A manic preacher spitting out gospels for the kids.
Since that show, live music has been troublesome for me. I started writing for the Pitch shortly after SXSW and that has given me the opportunity to see a ton of great shows for free and to write about them for a small sum, which is great and makes me feel productive and like I finally have some sort of thing to pursue. However, I've realized that most shows are really fucking boring. Like, really boring. Boring to the point where I can hardly get myself out the door anymore unless it's some random band I've heard one song by who're playing at the Replay or Rooftop Vigilantes. Otherwise, I see that the National are playing and I go “Great, I love that band, their records are fantastic but are they really going to do anything other than flawlessly execute their fantastic songs?” Probably not. And really, a few years ago I would have eaten this up but I just changed. I no longer get excited about shows, I actually sort of dread them. That is, with the exception of a small handful of bands. The Mountain Goats, the Weakerthans, Destroyer, Guided by Voices (who, those motherfuckers, announced a reunion gig featuring the CLASSIC 94-96 line-up in Las Vegas for the dumb Matador party thing gahhhhhhh), Superchunk, a few I can't think of right now, and naturally, the Hold Steady. So, I saw they were playing Omaha, told Jenny about it, and Jenny said WE ARE BOOKING A HOTEL ROOM AND BUYING TICKETS RIGHT NOW.
I should note that Jenny's obsession with the Hold Steady proves my “music is like religion” point I half-assedly tried to make a couple paragraphs back. I remember when I got her hooked, too. It was a litmus test. A sort of “if this person doesn't appreciate the Hold Steady I don't know if this is meant to be” sort of thing. I played Separation Sunday for her in the car on, naturally, Easter Sunday on the way to my parents house for dinner. This was a few months after we started dating and fortunately, my gamble paid off. It's gotten to the point where I come home and she's spinning Separation Sunday on the turntable and singing along to all the songs. It's a wonderful thing. So, a girlfriend that forces you to go to a show in Omaha and get over your laziness = good.
So, we drove to Omaha and saw the Hold Steady and that is what this was supposed to be about. Well, it is now. So, if you haven't seen the Hold Steady live you are missing out. If you have seen them and didn't get what the big deal was, we can't be friends. I am just kidding, or am I? That's my standard protocol. Backhanded criticism of your taste if you don't dig the Hold Steady. I know Kasey Klimes hates them, and since I still liked Kasey Klimes after he told me that, I figured I could tolerate other people's views even if they were a.) different from mine and b.) completely wrong. But then again, the people who tend to love the Hold Steady tend to be zealots. They also tend to be people who like having fun at a show, and after attending the jam packed show at the Slowdown, well, apparently Omaha doesn't like having fun. Or maybe I'm being too judgmental. I remember insane, drunken bonding experiences with strangers at the Lawrence shows and that last show at SXSW. “People touching people that they don't even know, yo,” to quote Finn. The Omaha show was pretty sterile, which was surprising given how fucking great the band was. Ok, so the absence of Franz Nicolay deals a pretty hefty blow to their charm, and the band seemed to be a little put off, but I'll be goddamned if Craig Finn wasn't selling his songs for everything that they were worth. He just never stops smiling, and the six times I've seen the band, he's always done this. There's just such a joy, a gratefulness to his demeanor that's really wonderful and impossibly great.
The sound system at Slowdown is pretty amazing. It's like Voodoo Lounge amazing. The problem is, it's so good the sound guy felt he needed to crank shit up as loud as it could go so Finn's vocals tended to get a little lost in the mix. However, we were standing about three feet away from him at the front of the stage so maybe it sounded better in the back to the folded arm toe-tappers. But, we sang along to all the songs so it didn't matter too much. But still, we'd gone up with hopes that Omaha knew how to party and they just really didn't. Maybe it was the fleet of doucher bros up front who didn't so much as move for an hour and a half, I don't know. I do know that I saw a couple of 18 or 19 year old kids who looked at the set-list (strictly forbidden in my book, but only for my love of surprises) and started pointing out the jams and jumping up and down with glee. Those were my people, and they were the only two other than me or Jenny and a couple of other dudes who were up front, jumping around and pretty much having the sun shine down on us like the chosen few. Watching Jenny through all of this was great. I've never seen her so unhinged! When the band laid into “Stevie Nix” she started screaming really loud. I don't think she remembers this, but I'm pretty sure Craig Finn saw her losing it and felt a little flicker of joy. Even though I sorta panned their latest offering, Heaven is Whenever, all the songs they played form it were the jams from that record so I couldn't complain. But MAN, I will complain forever about how sad I am that Franz Nicolay left the band. There was definitely an energy missing on Tuesday night, and that energy will be sadly missed.
A new keyboardist filled in, but he wasn't really anything special. He sat in the back, looked kind of bored, and his parts were almost always lost in the mix. Actually, the mix was pretty horrible from where I was standing. The bass was up too loud, the vocals weren't inaudible but not nearly loud enough and it sounded really muddy other than when the guitar solos broke out. But yeah, no fault of the band there. Maybe if the crowd had been more into it it would have been more amazing than it was (and really, it was pretty fucking amazing because I won't lie, if I could only see the Hold Steady live on a regular basis at the cost of never seeing another band play live again, I would be pretty happy). But I can't really blame Omaha. They're not bad folk, but they surely don't know how to party like a college town.
In the end, I learned that traveling to see your favorite band is absofuckinglutely worth it if they're coming within three or four hours of you. It's a fun thing you can make a micro-vacation out of. You can stay at a cheap hotel, get really drunk, and feel young and alive and all that stuff when a job and all that gets in the way of that feeling. The Hold Steady remind me to hold steady and to stay positive, and when a band can make me feel as much pure joy as I've ever felt ever, that's a special thing. I don't really hate you if you hate the Hold Steady, we're just fundamentally different. I'm blind like I don't know, that one red-headed Christian kid that went to my high school. I'm so set in my beliefs that I'm going to think you are wrong. I'm not going to think that you are going to HELL because you don't share my beliefs, but I will try to convert you because, like a good Christian, I think that where I'm at right now is the best place that you could possibly be. Except you don't have to die to get to heaven, a concept the Hold Steady are fond of. “Heaven is whenever we can get together/ sit down on your floor and listen to your records,” Finn sang. It's as simple as that. The feeling that I got when I heard the opening chords of “Slapped Actress” is as close to God as I get. Where I look to Jenny and she looks back at me with the same “this is really happening” look. It was pure joy. We got plastered, danced like teenagers, sang our throats raw, felt young and alive and it was pretty much the best ever. And that's pretty much it. I went to the show, blissfully knowing that I didn't have to review it and could enjoy it with pure, blissed out joy and wrote about it anyway because...well, I'm a zealot. Just stop me if I hand you out a pamphlet with the lyrics for “How a Resurrection Really Feels” printed inside.