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The Hold Steady

Live From SoHo

[Vagrant Records; 2011]

By ; January 21, 2011 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

The Hold Steady, traditionally, is a pretty love-’em-or-hate-’em kind of band. Most people start at the latter and wind up at the former. But at a recent show of theirs in San Diego, I found myself drifting from adoration to ambivalence. And, well, it sucked. I wasn’t so much bummed about their newer music not being as good as previous two albums (it’s not), as much as I was sad that the music of the their prime didn’t affect me as much as it used to. And it wasn’t even their fault. Their obnoxious fans, their parting with Franz Nicolay, their natural maturation and desire to grow: these aren’t things that I could rationally hold against them.

Still, when I got a copy of Live From SoHo, I gave it an almost-immediate listen. And, to steal from them, I was overjoyed. So what changed? What made a live, acoustic album all that special? Well, for one, there is an intimacy to this New York performance that draws in the listener from the opening Tad Kublar guitar riff in “Sweet Part Of The City,” which, like most of the record, shows of the tight guitar work of his that is often taken for granted.

Wait, what was that? A review of The Hold Steady that starts talking about Tad Kublar and not Craig Finn? I’ll get to Finn in a moment, but Kublar’s guitar work is the first striking thing on the eight song collection. But beyond his precise and focused playing (see “Both Crosses”), Kublar and rest of The Hold Steady’s backing band shines in their backing vocals. This was one of my main issues with post-Nicolay Hold Steady as the backing, when live, sounded thin and strained, whereas Nicolay could actually sing and provided a good counter-punch to Craig Finn’s rough-around-the-edges ramblings. But on Live From SoHo, the backing vocals become effective, miraculously. The acoustic atmosphere is probably the reason, given that the band can sing with relaxed ease, not needing to sing their guts out to reach the back of the noisy club.

“Chips Ahoy” offers the best of both worlds. The opening chorus uses the traditional backing “woah ho hoes,” but sound slightly out of reach for group. Then, either in a moment of genius improvisation or out of careful forethought, in the second chorus, Kublar plays their backing melody as a guitar lead. It’s perfect and delicate, balancing the stripped down version of the rocker like I imagine Bobby Flay cooks his food. (Side note: Bobby Flay, I would totally review your food! Send me a promo!)

But where this set knocks-it-out is in Craig Finn’s new found sincerity. If you’ve seen The Hold Steady live once, you were probably blown away. If you’ve seen them more than once, you start to feel cheated with each successive visit, as the show can come off overly planned and the stage banter repeats from date to date. But here, Finn takes the intimate atmosphere and runs with it, giving a nice anecdote how the band had played 48 states, and when they make it to Wyoming, he can’t wait to play Stay Positive b-side “Cheyenne Sunrise” for them. The one new-ish song on the set, live-tested jam “Separate Vacations,” is at company with the best from the band, but it’s Finn’s seeming belief in the sentiment he is singing that makes the moment special.

Sure, the set is not perfect. I mean, it’s a live album. “The Weekenders” sounds fine acoustic, but still feels robbed when the distortion doesn’t kick in where it should. But predominantly, it’s a reaffirmation of everything the band does right through an avenue that seems against everything they represent. If they are the world’s best bar band, on this night, they became the best coffee-shop band, too. It might be a look that suits them, as it is apparent that change is necessary to keep the band fresh. They have already embraced this idea with their last mediocre album, Heaven Is Whenever. This set, if anything, casts that record as a bad transition, rather than a bad transformation


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