The Hold Steady perform at the Black Cat in DC on Feb. 3, 2023. (Photo by David LaMason)
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band, The Hold Steady embarked on a USA tour that made several stops along the East Coast, landing in DC at the Black Cat Friday night. And, although this was my first time witnessing “America’s greatest bar band,” as Rolling Stone quipped early on, it wasn’t my first time either seeing a performance by frontman Craig Finn.
Way back in the mid-1990s, Finn and guitar maestro Tad Kubler’s pre-Hold Steady band Lifter Puller, a Midwest indie rockin’ outfit, ended up playing the go-to place at that time, Memory Lane, in the Pigtown neighborhood of Baltimore. I had the great fortune to see Finn again at a Baltimore house show at Club 603 — one of Baltimore’s best kept secrets, if you ask me — and I mentioned the show, figuring he couldn’t possibly remember that night out of hundreds (if not thousands) of shows that he had played since then.
To my surprise, Craig Finn not only remembered the show but could tell me who opened for them. What’s not surprising, though, was Finn’s singular ability to tell seemingly complex stories in the span of three or four minutes. That memory and storytelling are the focus on his recent podcast, “That’s How I Remember It,” is also not surprising.
Hearing that The Hold Steady was hitting the road for a few select dates to celebrate, I couldn’t sit on my hands. They scheduled a string of shows up the East Coast, hitting Brooklyn, Baltimore, DC, and Philly before embarking on a wider tour for their ninth studio album, The Price of Progress. I made it to the Black Cat early (don’t I always), and although that freezing air outside was maddening, it was all more than worth it as we shuffled in and the place filled up — as the show was sold out in a matter of moments after tickets went on sale.
Kicking things off, the band took the stage with “Hornets! Hornets!” from Separation Sunday, as Craig Finn sang She says always remember never to trust me / She said that the first night that she met me as the crowd sang along before the rest of the band jumped in with that crawling groove. In addition to Finn and Kubler, the band filled the stage with the organ/keyboard oscillations of Franz Nicolay, those melodic bass lines from Galen Polivka, the thundering drums from Bobby Drake, and the lightning guitar of Steve Selvidge.
And without skipping a beat (no pun intended) the band went right into “As Her for Adderall,” another fly-by-the-seat number that made me wonder how that energy these six fellas could generate without the wheels coming off. But there they were, soaring from one banger to another. Hitting one of my favorite songs, “Sequestered in Memphis,” the crowd sang along at the top of its collective voice and clapped along at the drum break.
Watch The Hold Steady perform “Sequestered in Memphis” on a rooftop for Pitchfork via YouTube:
Taking a much-deserved breather, Finn told the crowd, “The first time we every played here, we met this band called the Washington Social Club and they asked us to play… One thing I particularly remember during the show: This woman up front wanted to get my attention, and finally I asked how I could help her and she answered, ‘I was wondering if you could play something more fun'” — to big laughs.
The Hold Steady might be called many things, and indeed, we may even consider them “fun” thanks to their quick wits and lively performance. It’s hard to find a better combination of foot-to-the-pedal rock-and-roll and droll storytelling than this band from New York City.
As Finn has said in interviews, his characters are often trying their best to keep their heads above water — character sketches of everyday people. It’s the pulsing rock that pulls you in and the relatability of those stories that keep you hooked. And the band, with Finn reaching over the edge of the stage, arms wide, is ever engaging.
As The Hold Steady not only played songs spanning their 20 year career, but also played some brand new ones from their upcoming release, The Price of Progress, including the single, “Sideways Skull,” a driving rocker that everyone at the sold-out venue seemed to know the words to already.
Stream “Sideways Skull” by The Hold Steady on YouTube:
The biggest treat of the night came when merch manager extraordinaire, Mosh Pit Josh, took the stage with the band to sing a very punk, raucous “Stay Positive” during the encore, followed by their signature ender, “Killer Parties,” replete with confetti and a lot of smiles on sweaty faces.
The Hold Steady are off to their annual Weekender in the UK in March and then it’s back to the States to celebrate the new record, and it’s a show not to miss!
The setlist included:
Ask Her for Adderall
Cattle and the Creeping Things
Sequestered in Memphis
On With the Business
One for the Cutters
Stuck Between Stations
Lord, I’m Discouraged
Don’t Let Me Explode
Confusion in the Marketplace
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Here are more photos of The Hold Steady performing at the Black Cat Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.