The Hold Steady/The Loved Ones; July 18, 2008; Majestic Theater
On their most recent record Stay Positive, the Hold Steady have recorded a song that doesn’t sound like a Hold Steady song, The surreal, druggy “Both Crosses” marks a departure from their tried and true Springsteen-esque sing-a-long anthems, too bad I don’t think they are ever going to play it live. While most of the other songs from the record have made it into the set list, that and the small town scandal “One for the Cutters,” stay noticeably absent. I wouldn’t really care, except that, well, I really like that song. It’s hard to find much else to complain about in a Hold Steady show, one of the most reliably entertaining live bands out there. This was my first sold out show at the Majestic, and it is certainly not my favorite place to see a show with that many people. The problem is that a good chunk of their rated capacity is in the spacious balcony, but no one wants to be in the balcony for a show like this. In fact, everyone wants to be on the floor, right in front of the stage. We chose what we thought would be a safer spot, the rail on a level only a few steps up, where we could observe the shifting mass of people without actually being a part of it.
My other complaint may be a case of “it’s not them, it’s me.” While no one else had this problem, I just didn’t think that it sounded that good. Those massive choruses with backing vocals from guitarist Tad Kubler and keyboard player Franz Nicolay that fill out the songs and turn them into said anthems seemed muted and compressed in the former movie theater. Front man Craig Finn still just seems to be wearing a guitar for show, it isn’t like he needs something to do with his hands; he spends most of the set gesturing wildly, using his hands to punctuate the words he keeps repeating off mike. Finn enjoys nothing more than referencing himself, there are characters that have appeared on all four Hold Steady records and he steals lines freely from those songs. Even the title song from the new record goes back to the first song from Almost Killed Me “Positive Jam,” while the line “there’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get her the highest,” is a direct quote from the opening track of Separation Sunday. If you’ve been listening long enough it becomes a game to pick out those self-references. As they continue to rapidly outgrow bar band status, I wonder if they will eventually leave the lovable losers like Charlemagne and Hallelujah behind.
One thing for sure, it pays to be friends with the Hold Steady. If not for their connection to the band, I can’t imagine how the Loved Ones would have ended up with tonight’s opening spot. Not that there was anything wrong with them necessarily, it was just that there was nothing the least bit original or interesting in their set. We couldn’t quite figure out which 90’s band they sounded like, maybe Matchbox 20, maybe Tonic, or maybe just some sort of amalgamation of everything that was popular sometime circa 1997. The most inspired moment of their set came on the last number when they invited their friends Kubler and Nicolay to join them. Granted the Hold Steady isn’t doing anything particularly original either, but at least they are drawing from better source material.