The best bands are never satiated by just playing their old music, but the best of the best also really enjoy playing their old songs alongside new ones. This past weekend at Brooklyn Bowl, The Hold Steady’s “Massive Nights” showed that Craig Finn and company are amongst the best of the best. Where last year’s shows were strictly a birthday celebration for Boys and Girls in America, these shows were a little more rounded, and the band also had a pair of new songs to feed to a rabid fanbase. Frank Turner was just the cherry to top it off.
The Hold Steady are a little bit like a jam band in the way that a whole community has grown around their music. It’s rare for that to happen for bands that aren’t The Grateful Dead or Phish, and there are few exceptions to the rule. There aren’t really casual fans, and if there are, they weren’t at Brooklyn Bowl. Walking into an empty venue, a large portion of fans milled the bar or the lanes, while a small, slowly growing cluster stuck by the front of the stage. Being a Saturday night and the last of four nights, there was definitely a little more energy, people were open to hang out and drink some more than maybe they would have for the other shows. Also, the opener for that night’s show had only been announced a few hours prior, where all others had about 24 hours’ notice. Frank Turner was only announced a few hours prior, although the rumor had spread around, and Turner was hanging out by the lanes prior to his set.
Frank Turner is a rockstar in his own rite. He’s a headliner in his home country, and the last time he’d played New York with The Sleeping Souls, it was at the 3,000 seat Beacon Theater. For reference, Brooklyn Bowl only holds about 600 people, so this was not the standard Frank Turner set. Armed with just an acoustic guitar, Turner’s set laid mostly on fan-favorites. There were hits to satiate the casual or new listeners like “Get Better”, “Photosynthesis”, and “The Ballad of Me and My Friends.” The best moments were when Turner didn’t go with the obvious choices from his records by playing “Recovery” and “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous,” where he created the illusion of a full-band behind him. The biggest treat though, perhaps of the night as a whole, were hearing Turner’s new songs. It seems like on the next record, we’ll be treated to Turner stepping back into the political realm after 2015’s Positive Songs for Negative People. “Be More Kind” was a ballad urging everyone to do just that. The other new piece, “Ignorant Englishman” was a rousing call to arms, where Turner appropriated Donald Trump’s slogan, and added a caveat: “Let’s make America great again/by making racists ashamed again.” There was tension in the room, but mainly because it’s incredibly uncomfortable to hear someone triumphantly shouting “Make America great again,” but the air was quickly lifted as Turner got to the next line. Throughout his set, Turner mentioned that he’d flown over at 7AM UTC, and he’d be flying home at 5AM EST the next morning. He asked the crowd to help keep him awake for The Hold Steady’s set, but it seemed he wouldn’t need any help once Tad Kubler’s guitar riff started. Turner really set the mood in motion at the end of his set with “I Still Believe.”
The Hold Steady are a band built on partying through whatever life throws at you. Regardless of whatever darkness or negativity is there, the band performs with a spring in each step that even if Craig Finn is singing about Jesus, breakups, or overdoses. He also performs with the intensity of a high school freshman being cast as the lead role in the musical. Going into a Hold Steady show, there are certain beats that people know will be hit. Finn won’t really use his guitar as much as Kubler or Steve Selvidge, or he’ll sing a line then dance in front of the mike while repeating it just for the crowd. There are also popular Hold Steady lyric swaps that every diehard knows (“We kissed in your car/and we fucked in your church” in “Massive Nights”). There are even moments of stage banter that people will shout along with Finn. The new songs were obvious highlights, as the band was eager to play. They also stuck out as highlights, because of how much they sound like early Hold Steady songs with Franz Nicolay rejoining the band. While people were singing along with every word, certain songs had a slightly stronger pull having the entire crowd singing with it. “Stay Positive” and “Constructive Summer” were major standouts with guest appearances from Moshpit Josh and Frank Turner respectively, but nothing really matched the bittersweet melancholy of “Killer Parties.”
Craig Finn announced that the final song was going to be the hundredth that they’d played that weekend, and he asked the crowd if they wanted to do this again next year. It’s corny to call music a religious experience, but with The Hold Steady, it really is, simply because of the content. There’s a homily-like quality to “How A Resurrection Really Feels,” in that it’s a story about someone finding God, or “You Can Make Him Like You” is as resonant as people repeating “Lord, hear our prayer.” When “Killer Parties” started, I looked around, and I saw people I didn’t really know but recognized. The Hold Steady attracts a certain type of person, and even though there was joy and energy on all these strangers’ (and Frank Turner’s) faces, everyone seemed at peace. I can’t speak for every single person if they got what they needed out of that show, but I’m pretty sure we were happy.