Those passing by The Academy on Abbey Street must think that Morrissey has gone all Americana. Fortunately for all of us inside, he hasn’t. The bespectacled young men in check shirts, of which there are many in The Academy tonight, are here to spend the evening in the company of The Hold Steady; or perhaps more aptly, Craig Finn’s America. For Finn’s America is one populated with big losers in love, killer parties, massive nights and mornings spent shaking off the remnants of last night’s party. Classic rock and punk are in harmony with one another, and tales of mall rats and little hoodrat friends slip off his tongue with ease.
On the surface, a Hold Steady gig resembles that of a Shane McGowan / Pogues gig; crazed debauchery fits in with the feel of the music, and there’s more of a house party feel to the proceedings than that of a live performance. Front man Craig Finn is animated, jovial, humble and inclusive. Frequently making eye contact with the audience and jumping around the stage like a cross between a hardcore singer and a stadium rocker, Finn’s narrative- driven lyrics adds to the intimacy of the night’s proceedings.
But something is apparently missing, and the band’s more than devoted following can spot it from a mile a way. Franz Nicolay, keyboard and piano player with the band, quit the band some time ago, and his absence is felt sharply in the band’s sound. Though The Hold Steady has beefed up their sound with the help rhythm guitarist Steve Selvidge (formerly of Memphis alt country rockers, Lucero), tunes with the central, E- Street – influenced piano lines, such as ‘Stevie Nix’, ‘Stuck Between Stations’ and ‘Chips Ahoy!’ sound empty. It’s of little consolation, but if you listen hard enough, you can hear many fans humming the piano lines to these songs.
What unfortunately also works against the band on the night is the one- dimensional feel of the setlist, which could leave a first-time listener of the band to believe that almost every song they’ve written is in the same tempo and, almost, the same key. Even songs like ‘First Night’ or ‘Citrus’ could have changed the mood a little and saved the band (and the audience) from being on the receiving end of a monotonous setlist.
The Hold Steady have, unquestionably, heart. They know what makes a good, solid rock show and, in Craig Finn, they have a front man who is fearless, playful and, crucially, has something to say. But without keyboard player Nicolay and refusing to give Finn’s lyrics the 360-degree view- musically- that they need, they’re in danger of becoming rock’s worst case scenario: a riff- heavy band that turn the amps up to 11 to compensate for what isn’t there.