The Hold Steady: Show Review (The Casbah, San Diego)

    It’s been interesting to follow the evolution of the Hold Steady, both on record and live. When I saw them in 2005, at the Casbah, a 200-capacity club in San Diego, the set drew only from 2004’s Almost Killed Me and the then newly released Separation Sunday. Led by frontman Craig Finn’s ranting vocals and too much alcohol, the concert, to crib Finn’s own lyric from last month’s Stay Positive, was “a big sketchy mess.”

    As they’ve glorified the art of restraint on their subsequent albums, their liveshows have followed suit. They haven’t abandoned the frantic bar-room bravado, but they’ve put melody and music first, to obviously successful results.

    The second show of their North American tour, on August 1 at the Casbah, wasn’t as revelatory or dramatic as the ongoing rails of Charlemagne, Holly, and Gideon that pervade their four albums. But it was exciting to see a band make the transition to widespread acclaim without losing anything in the process.

    The Hold Steady would be smart to open every show with “Constructive Summer.” Its clever lyrics — “Me and my friends are like/ The drums on ‘Lust for Life’” — backed by a straight-ahead guitar attack and repeated audience chants perfectly synthesize the reckless past with the melodic control that’s propelled them to a bigger national stage.

    Other highlights included Stay Positive’s “Magazines,” “Navy Sheets,” and “Lord, I’m Discouraged” — complete with Tad Kubler’s extended Guns N’ Roses-style guitar solo — and the crowd-led “Massive Nights” and “Chips Ahoy!” from 2006’s Boys and Girls in America. The audience, with an average age of 30-plus, seemed more enthused by Stay Positive songs, but “Hornets! Hornets” and “The Swish” drew a strong response, with Finn alternately jumping, running, and emphasizing the multitude of lyrics by extending his arms like a dive-bar preacher.

    After the blowout beginning of the first five or six songs, the crowd seemed to lose a little steam, not at all helped by Stay Positive’s extra-track ballad “Cheyenne Sunrise” and the self-indulgence of “Milkcrate Mosh,” a dragging and rarely played (perhaps wisely) bonus track to Almost Killed Me. In fact, while Finn never seemed fazed — even when the stage lights repeatedly went out — he told the crowd, after the penultimate song, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” “I knew you guys would wake up eventually.”

    Ending the set with “Killer Parties” has become a staple of their shows for the past couple of years, with good reason. To the final lyric, Finn, with the swell of guitar and piano, opened his arms, smiled, raised his hands, and, in the same way their music aims at all-encompassing glory, said this to the sold-out crowd: “We’re all the Hold Steady.”

    Set list:
    01. Constructive Summer
    02. Joke About Jamaica
       3. You Can Make Him Like You
    04. Magazines
    05. Cattle and the Creeping Things
    06. Sequestered in Memphis
    07. Navy Sheets
    08. Chips Ahoy!
    09. Cheyenne Sunrise
    10. One for the Cutters
    11. Same Kooks
    12. Milkcrate Mosh
    13. Massive Nights
    14. Yeah Sapphire
    15. Lord, I’m Discouraged
    16. Hornets! Hornets!
    17. You Gotta Dance (with Who You Came to the Dance With)
    18. Slapped Actress
    01. Stuck Between Stations
    02. The Swish
    03. Your Little Hoodrat Friend
    04. Killer Parties