As incredible as it sounds, the doors actually opened at 6pm, at which point 20 or so fans were barked at, searched, and released into the club. At 6:30, the opening act began. Although the concert was a pre-show sellout, when the first band began at 6:30 the audience was only 100 strong. These 100 were either die-hard fans aching to be up front for The Hold Steady, or unemployed. It may be both. Early shows draw an odd crowd.
For the next half hour, opening act Federale failed to endear itself to the audience. To say this Brooklyn-based quartet is derivative is an understatement. Songs sounded as if they were cribbed from Wolfmother which had, of course, stolen them outright from Sabbath. The band's rehashed psychedelic metal is defined by an overblown Gibson-through-Marshall growl with dueling guitars riffing over each other mercilessly. There were moments of tight groove – enough to wonder if an audience member might be serious when he shouted out "You Rock!" to the band. Although Federale may have won itself a fan there, those around me seemed more interested in texting than shaking their ass to the southern boogie. Often the most entertaining element in the set was frontman John S.'s esoteric stage banter, which included gems like: "The last time we played in Chicago, we got fucked," followed by a long bewildering pause, and then a curt "I'm just going to leave it at that." Or an introduction to a song that went: "This one is about a big and beautiful woman. It's called Delta Burke." See, I knew these New Yorkers had an appreciation for the south.
At a bit after 7:00, England's Art Brut took the stage, effectively erasing the butt rock stain left by Federale. Art Brut's sound combines the raucousness of garage rock with the cool and coy post-modernism of art-punk. Frontman Eddie Argos is witty, and his lyrics are often "meta" – consider the band's first single 2004's "We Formed a Band" which tells the story of the writing of that very song. Delightful.
Over the past several years, the band has been grappling with a stage show that began as impromptu and exciting, but was repeated so often as to become disingenuous. It seems with this tour, the band has finally found its proper footing. The biggest change stemmed from the addition of a projector in the band's show displaying song titles, song lyrics, and a witty running commentary (akin to Stephen Colbert's "The Word" segment). While Argos joked that this had taken all the spontaneity out of the show, the visual additions more than made up for it. Another big change came with the removal of Argos' long dialogues with the audience – such as the now-hackneyed explanation about "Emily Kane" which halted the song since it's early performances. That song now has a tasteful new verse that incorporates the "this isn't about you any longer" explanations of the past without skipping a beat. Argos did manage to make it over the barrier and into the audience several times during the set. That much has remained.
The set list for this tour had also been revised to include "St. Pauli" and a positively smoking version of "Nag Nag Nag Nag" that highlighted just how tight the band can be. While "Direct Hit" had to be skipped due to time constraints, the band completed the show with a medley of "Good Weekend," "Top of the Pops," and "We Formed a Band." Rather than dredge these older songs out night after night, it seems the band has relegated them to lyrical snippets it can quickly pay homage to, and then move on. As Argos and drummer Mikey Breyer synchronized their pounding finale, the screen behind the band took care of the expected banter, flashing up "We've been Great," "Tip Your Bartender," and "Applause Now…" messages to the crowd.
Although the audience may not have been in full force at 6:30, by 8:30 the Metro was packed to capacity. I didn't dare give up my spot at the railing to take photographs in the pit, as I knew I wouldn't be able to return to my spot if I did. Those around me inched forward, not outwardly pushing, but attempting to be coy about their progress. Typically those bold enough were able to move forward, while their meek victims would only mutter passive-aggressively to their friends, "Haven't we been standing here since 7:00?" That was met with an "I don’t care what she thinks, I paid for a ticket too." Ahh indie rock shows.
At a bit after 8:30, The Hold Steady began its set with a string of three songs from its 2006 album Boys & Girls in America before quickly dipping back to the band's 2004 debut Almost Killed Me. 14 of the 19 songs performed came from those two albums, along with two songs from 2005's Separation Sunday, and three new ones. While the band didn't play "Barfruit Blues" or "Chill Out Tent" it did cover just about every other song the audience might have come for. The new songs were typical Hold Steady fare that varied from anthemic rockers full of hectic energy to quiet, sad, and literate ballads. The most developed of the new songs was the slow, accordion-laden, "Lord, I'm Discouraged." While The Hold Steady has always channeled Bruce Springsteen exceptionally well, this song allowed the band to surface its inner Bob Dylan. Thankfully Finn's overdriven stadium-rock guitar strums, and guitarist Tad Kubler's smoking guitar solo made the song undeniably The Hold Steady.
Despite the capacity crowd at the larger-than-I-would-like Metro, Finn made the show personal and intimate. His years of experience on stage were evident, as he was relaxed and comfortably in control of the show. His on-stage banter was conversational, playing on the band's upper Midwest roots and its long-standing relationship with Chicago. Several times Finn dedicated songs to friends in the audience, or commented on how many familiar faces he saw in the crowd. Whether he knew them or not, each member of the audience was friendly face that had clearly come to see The Hold Steady.
After closing with "How a Resurrection Really Feels," the band left the stage while the audience clamored for an encore that the band had already scripted. Finn returned to the stage first, but was closely followed by keyboardist/accordionist Franz Nicolay. Together they played a sparse version of the already touching "Certain Songs." After three more songs, the band left the stage, and The Metro ushered out the audience. Although one wouldn't have known it from the crowd, this was an all-ages show, and thus subject to the city's 10:00 curfew. While the 6:30pm start time may have seemed surreal, the early dismissals are undeniably wonderful. I guess that makes me part of the "odd crowd."