Craig Finn makes for an unlikely rock star. It’s partly his anti-hipster look, always sporting novelist eyeglasses and either a button-down shirt or a Twins T, but more than that it’s the vibe.
The energetic frontman for The Hold Steady brings a complete absence of cynicism and jaded rock attitude to every show, and Tuesday night at Belly Up Tavern was no different. Finn is always joyful as he weaves complex lyrical tapestries, living out his heady narratives onstage with manic hand gestures and sprightly handclaps, and mouthing lines off-mic like a shared secret between the audience.
The band has been around a while, with Tuesday’s release of Heaven Is Whenever putting them five albums deep, but Hold Steady songs bridge generations. Their newest effort extends ongoing sagas of urban slackers with familiar themes of innocence and faith, drugs and parties, crushes and love; and anyone who is or was ever young can relate. Not to mention the fact that the lyrics are set against catchy, bar-band rock and anthemic, beer-spraying sing-alongs that can inject youthful energy into even the mellowest old burnout.
The only hushed moment of the night came from this tour’s version of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” which devolved into a slow jam with dueling, liquid guitar solos. With the music held at a simmer, Finn went into a casual banter about the band’s hometown of Minneapolis, which turned out to be a calculated lead-in to an explosive, floodlit finale. Finn celebrated the album release with a rare cerveza, and seemed giddy when the crowd shouted lyrics to the new stuff as enthusiastically as for the older hits.
The band managed to fit in 9 out of the 10 songs from the new album (all but the alt-country Skynyrd homage “Sweet Part of the City”) before the encore by powering through the rocking set with few breaks.
The songs weren’t the only new feature: throughout the show, new addition Steve Selvidge added ripping guitar solos to counter Tad Kubler’s backbone riffs, and the keyboardist did his best impression of fan favorite Franz Nicolay, filling in after Nicolay’s recent amicable departure.
Somehow, in addition to 90% of Heaven is Whenever, the band also squeezed in a ton of old hits drawing equally from the previous three albums. I expected to hear “Sweet Part of the City” in the encore; instead they gave us “Chips Ahoy!”, “You Can Make Him Like You,” and a headbanging performance of “Southtown Girls.” Judging by the dancing and flailing up front, the crowd wasn’t disappointed.
It’s a beautiful thing, the brain-brawn duality of this band. You can let yourself be drawn into Finn’s universe, empathize with the characters, analyze the layered themes and self-referential prose. Or you can just come for the party — The Hold Steady won’t care either way.