The Hold Steady/The Donkeys; August 24, 2011; Turner Hall
The last time the Hold Steady played Turner Hall they sold it out. Tonight’s show was not sold out, in fact it wasn’t even that crowded. We’ve become accustomed to yielding ten to twenty yards once the band starts. Tonight we backed up only a few feet as the show started. We couldn’t help thinking that maybe no one likes them anymore. After all, the last record got a lukewarm reception from fans who couldn’t quite figure out why after four records Craig Finn has suddenly decided to start singing instead of talking his way through every song. The departure of keyboardist and backing vocalist Franz Nicolay was also puzzling, he had been a crucial part of their sound since joining the band. It was his keyboards and backing vocals that gave the Hold Steady their Springsteen sound, and they seemed to like it that way. For the record, I like Heaven is Whenever, a lot. It took a few listens but it grew on me quickly.
The first time I heard these songs live, in the unlikely location of Hayward WI and the three words I never thought I’d hear “Thank you Hayward!” Nicolay’s absence didn’t seem as obvious. That was likely because there was a keyboard player, he was just hidden at the back of the stage, sitting down and playing and singing backing vocals. This time there was no buffer and his absence was starkly obvious. This resulted in a weird phenomenon, at least for me, the new songs sounded the best while the old songs seemed a little off. Maybe it is because Finn is now actually singing on these songs too, and that is something I’m just not used to. Or maybe it is something else, I just don’t know what. I was delighted to hear songs like “Massive Nights,” the glorious ode to high school, Homecoming and drinking, and the false accusations and petty jealousy of “Little Hoodrat Friend,” and of course Finn’s wild gesturing between “cigarettes” and “eyes” in “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night,” but honestly, the new songs sounded better.
There’s also the matter of guitarist Tad Kubler. It would appear he has a stylist, or at least someone who told him his current cut was a good luck for him. We joked that the only way this was acceptable was if his girlfriend did it, and she was still in cosmetology school. Not that there is anything wrong with that of course, appearance shouldn’t matter, but it was just so damn distracting. Overall, I certainly enjoyed the show but the jury is out on whether I go very far out of my way to see them in the future.
The nicest surprise of the night was the opening set from the awkwardly named The Donkeys. I’ve become accustomed to terrible openers in Milwaukee. Turner Hall has a better track record than the Pabst, where I have to think long and hard to come up with an opener who wasn’t dreadful (the Thermals are the only one I can think of). So I wasn’t expecting much from Donkeys. They had started right on time and were already playing when we walked up the stairs to the massive ballroom. It didn’t take long for me to proclaim I liked them, and only a few songs more before I decided I would buy a CD if it was $10. I stopped short of naming them my new favorite band, the Features still solidly occupy that spot, but I did buy a CD even though it was $12. Most of the foursome sang lead at some point, and their distinct voices made for an interesting mix. My favorite was the bass player who reminded me of a young Bob Dylan if he’d been taking hair styling tips from Lyle Lovett. After the show I encouraged them to come to Madison sometime, and they said they definitely wanted to come back to Wisconsin. I hope they do, because until then I am just going to yell “Donkeys!” at every other band I see. Thanks Hold Steady for introducing us.
The Hold Steady