Live Review: The Hold Steady at the Waiting Room

Craig Finn performs with The Hold Steady at The Waiting Room Lounge.

I was excited for Friday night’s The Hold Steady show for two reasons: 1) They were going to play new music, as frontman Craig Finn told me last week and 2) It was Friday and I could sleep a little bit on Saturday.

I met up with some friends and a whiskey drink and a few rounds of “Tron: Legacy” pinball at Beercade later, we ended up at The Waiting Room to see opener Mount Carmel. On its records, they sounded like a redux of The Black Keys, but live they were way more like the Black Crowes.

I wasn’t really there for them and (honestly?), though they did a fine job as an opening band, I wasn’t thrilled enough by them to seek out more of their music.

Luckily, it wasn’t long before the lights went down and the house music came up and The Hold Steady came on.

Let’s start with the new songs: One was decent, another was good and the third was great. “Teeth Dreams” was a story song about friends and bad dreams that included lines such as “The only thing we look at is the scoreboard/The only thing we talk about is our dreams” and “The only place we went to was the airport/The only thing we talked about was TV/She says some things we don’t believe.” I liked it, but wasn’t blown away.

“Look Alive,” Finn said, was about homeless guys dressed up like cowboys and how Minneapolis is full of guys who fit the description (Finn called the town “the first western city”). He said Friday’s show was the first time the band had played the song for anyone, and it included lyrics like “Yeah, he doesn’t feel that good about himself/He doesn’t look alive.”

The third was “Let’s Wait Awhile,” which doesn’t have the title of a rocker, but it pushed as hard as “Massive Nights” or “Stuck Between Stations.” (“‘Let’s Wait Awhile’ doesn’t sound like a kickass rock title,” Finn said. “‘Let’s Do It Right Now’ sounds better. Think of it like ‘Let’s do it right now, but let’s wait awhile to stop.”)

The new song was easily the best new tune. When I talked to him briefly after the show, he said it was the most catchy of the new stuff. The hooks from lead guitarist Tad Kubler were solid and had me reeled in and I really liked the chorus: “Once they hear you have a broken heart, they’re gonna come around and try to make you smile./Little girl, don’t you rush right in./Why don’t you wait awhile?”

The rest of the set was full of some of my favorite Hold Steady songs, though they opted to go for all rockers and none of the good, slower, sadder songs such as “Citrus,” “Lord, I’m Discouraged” or “First Night.” I think they’re going for the more celebratory feel these days, and the crowd loved it. I, among many others, raised my glass for Joe Strummer during “Constructive Summer” and sang along to “Sequestered in Memphis.”

At 40, Finn is an unlikely frontman. His voice isn’t soaring through the roof, but it works well for The Hold Steady. He’s not a model, but a regular-looking guy you wouldn’t be surprised to see at the bar. He seems way too joyous to be singing about Saturday nights, drugs and drinking, but he really is so excited to be fronting a band and singing to the crowd.

“What’s up, Omaha?” he said after coming onstage. “It’s Friday night. It’s summertime. I think we’re gonna have a good time tonight.”

The audience, nearly full but no sellout, certainly did. I imagine the bar made a pretty penny from the abundance of drinkers. I thought it should be a sellout at The Waiting Room since it’s a popular band in a smaller venue but I think two things happened: the College World Series just sucks up the kind of people who go to events (concerts or no) and I think people assumed since the band was playing The Waiting Room, it must have sold out immediately (I had tons of people ask me that in the week before the show).

Anyway, it was one of the best sets from the band that I’ve seen. They hit on the best and most classic rock-style songs from the last three albums (“Rock Problems,” “You Gotta Dance,” “Magazines”) as well as a few older tunes (“Hornets! Hornets!,” “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”).

They also seem much more settled in with guitarist Steve Selvidge who came to the band when keyboardist Franz Nicolay left a few years ago. Songs with big piano breaks like “Stuck Between Stations” no longer feel weird.

The best part of the night was the finale, which ended with an encore of three of their best songs (complete setlist below), including personal favorite “How a Resurrection Really Feels.

Even after a long set, Finn and the band looked happy, though weary much like the audience.

“We’re the Hold Steady and that is how a resurrection realllly feels,” Finn said, arms outstretched. “Thank you, Omaha. We love you. Stay positive.”

After the show was over, the crowd wandered out, all of us tired, some of us drunk, most of us very happy.

Setlist
Hornets! Hornets!
Hurricane J
The Swish
Rock Problems
Magazines
You Can Make Him Like You
Sweet Part of the City
Teeth Dreams*
You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to the Dance With)
Constructive Summer
Hot Soft Light
Chips Ahoy!
Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
Stuck Between Stations
Look Alive*
Sequestered in Memphis
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Let’s Wait Awhile*
Weekenders
Southtown Girls
Encore:
Massive Nights
Stay Positive
How a Resurrection Really Feels

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