The Hold Steady wanted to do something special to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their breakout album Boys And Girls In America. So, in December 2016, they played a run of four shows at an intimate Brooklyn venue. Fans travelled from as far afield as New Zealand to see the band up close and hear a different set each night.
The residency was such a success that last year the group took it to Chicago and back to New York City. Now they’ve brought it to London, a city that, frontman Craig Finn acknowledges, has welcomed them with open arms since 2007.
That welcome tonight, after a break of more than three years, could better be described as rabid. As soon as the house lights go down to the sounds of the Pink Panther theme, the capacity crowd don’t stop bouncing, yelling, waving, singing, swaying, smiling, or enjoying themselves almost as much as Finn himself.
Totally unhindered by his guitar or the responsibility of nailing the complex narratives of his lyrics, he’s in almost-perpetual motion. Even hemmed in by the five other men on the frankly too-small stage, the ever-grinning Finn opens his arms as if to embrace the audience, points, claps, slams his palms against his temples, enacts the folded hands emoji, or hops up and down like a little boy who really needs to pee.
Such unbridled passion is exactly what’s demanded of these emotionally charged songs that deal in universal truths. As Finn points out: “We all fall in love, we all get sad, we all get wasted, we all love Friday nights, and we all love rock ‘n’ roll.”
And good-time rock ‘n roll is exactly what The Hold Steady deliver during their international debut as a six-piece. Described by the singer as the group’s best ever line-up, they muscle their way through 24 high-energy anthems and one tender ballad (a majestic First Night) in just under two hours.
With this residency billed as “Boys and Girls In London”, the emphasis is obviously on the LP that changed the band members’ lives forever. Opening the first Electric Ballroom show, the raucous Stuck Between Stations not just sets the tone but immediately highlights the importance of Franz Nicolay’s return. Whether it’s the 2006 album’s live staples (Chips Ahoy!, Southtown Girls) or lesser known tracks (Same Kooks), his keyboards are just as essential as the guitars of Tad Kubler, Steve Selvidge, and Finn.
The same can be said of brand new song Eureka, released earlier this week in celebration of these three UK shows. Never before performed in public, the lyrically nuanced mid-tempo rocker influenced by a “beautiful but sketchy” place in California once again relies on the interplay between keys and guitar. And, like another recent offering played tonight, the celebratory Entitlement Crew, it slips effortlessly into a set that pairs favourites (Your Little Hoodrat Friend, Sequestered In Memphis), with relative rarities (Ask Her For Adderall, Yeah Sapphire).
There’s even time for a gutsy rendition of The Weekenders from 2010’s unjustly overlooked Heaven Is Whenever, anchored by a solid groove from the no-nonsense rhythm section, bass player Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake. And, while there’s a definite leaning towards their earlier work, most recent LP Teeth Dreams is represented by a ballsy I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You, capped by some ferocious riffing from Kubler, Selvidge, and Finn.
“Are you guys having as much fun as I am?” the frontman asks at one point. To be fair, that’s physically impossible, but the fevered masses from London (and around the world) certainly give it their best shot.
Review of The Hold Steady @ Electric Ballroom on 9th March 2018 by Nils van der Linden. Photos by Rachel Lipsitz.