Heaven is Whenever We Can Be Together: The Hold Steady Warm-Up in New Haven
Photo's and Words By Bill Reese
The Hold Steady began their 2010 road itinerary with a series of shows at mid-sized venues in order to prep for a summer filled with big festival gigs and a full-scale tour. Their show at Toad’s Place in New Haven was the second of these “warm-up” shows, allowing them to get a better feeling of the group’s forthcoming LP, Heaven is Whenever, in a live setting.
The band took the stage a little before 8:30 and immediately jumped into “Rock Problems,” a riff-rocking gem reminiscent of The Hold Steady’s first album, Almost Killed Me. While Craig Finn held a blue Gibson with a Grateful Dead bear sticker for the entire show, his instrument has long been regarded as a prop, as lead guitarist Tad Kubler typically picks up the majority of the six-string slack. For this show, however, Finn’s ax was rendered nearly inaudible by the group’s addition of rhythm guitarist Steve Selvidge, formerly of Lucero.
After the new song, the band slipped into the cozy comforts of their back catalogue, running through songs like “Massive Nights,” “You Can Make Him Like You,” “Hot Soft Light” and “Constructive Summer” in quick succession. Towards the middle of the set, the band waded into some of the newer material. “The Weekenders,” which on the MTV.com preview comes across a little softer and slower, was thrashed with thick, juicy power chords in the chorus. “Hurricane J,” which half the crowd still hasn’t yet heard, is already a fan favorite amongst those who have, and it is destined to find a permanent spot in The Hold Steady’s rock-out repertoire.
The other songs from the new LP are a lot moodier, slower and lyrically complex. The real standout is a 5-minute ballad called “We Can Be Together,” which might shed a little light onto the album’s title. The song—built on wavy guitar lines—builds up to a bridge of pounding guitar lines and climaxes with Finn singing “Heaven is whenever we can be together,” (or “Heaven is whenever. We can be together.”) Either way, it’s probably the most romantic line he’s ever written. It also offers some hope to the legions of HS secularists who feel the need to insist that the group is not a Christian Rock band. (Finn also changed a line in “Massive Nights” to “We kissed in your car and we fucked in your church.”)
This was the band’s second show without former keyboardist Franz Nicolay—who left the group earlier this year and was not a part of the Heaven sessions. His absence left an emotional and musical void on the stage. The mustachioed, beret-wearing pianist was replaced by Dan Neustadt, who sat at the right of drummer Bobby Drake and was rarely heard from the entire show. Even on “Sequestered in Memphis,” the band’s big hit off 2008’s Stay Positive, the keys were drowned out (perhaps intentionally) by the trio of guitars. Either the road crew is still getting used to mixing the sound of the shuffled lineup or it’s a subtle “fuck you” to Nicolay and his wine-chucking persona. Though Neustadt played the selection well, Nicolay’s signature piano flourish in “Stuck Between Stations” was also covered up by Finn leading a flurry of rhythmic handclaps, something the former keyboardist would never have stood for.
The second half of the set was more scattered between new material and cuts from the previous four LP’s. It was a delight to hear “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” and “Hornets! Hornets!” get dusted off and thrown back into the rotation. If this gig was any indication, the band seems to really prefer 2006’s Boys & Girls in America, as they played more songs from that opus—even from the new record.
Despite being a bit rusty, the band put forth a 90-minute set of high-energy rock & roll, even though they are still getting used to the new songs, some of which don’t move their normally-rambunctious fans as wildly as the old stuff. It was certainly the oddest HS gig I’ve seen, especially considering the absence of Nicolay and the fact that Craig Finn drank cans of Diet Coke all show. In the past, Finn has sometimes toasted before the band even comes onstage. It left many in attendance intrigued about Heaven is Whenever, which Vagrant Records will release on May 4 in the U.S. and a day earlier across the pond.