The Hold Steady / Art Brut
9:30 Club; Washington, DC

For an avid concertgoer whose typical spot is located right up front in the pit, a balcony can afford quite the distinct experience. The pit allows for total absorption into the show, eye contact with the musicians, and other fans trying to shove up to the front. While the balcony may put some distance between fan and singer, it also gives one the opportunity to watch all the little offstage dramas unfold.

Sobriety is not a word associated with a double bill splattered with the names The Hold Steady and Art Brut. Before getting into the heart of the review, I would like to present my top two non-music related events of the evening (in no particular order).

1. At one point during the Hold Steady set, some geek gets up on the stage, dances about a little, and then jumps into the crowd. A few songs later, the dude decides to try it again. I can see the bouncer waiting for him behind the speaker. Dude can’t. As he attempts to get on stage again, the bouncer crouches like a cat, springs into the air, and knocks the guy back into the crowd in a full-on tackle. Then the bouncer drags him through the audience and out the back.
2. A few dorks decide to start a mosh pit. I happen to know the guy standing right up front. He’s a big guy. The erstwhile moshers keep pushing into him. When my friend turns to ask them to stop, they rip the glasses right off his face. He mouths something about killing them, points, and gets ready to throw a punch. I am instantly thankful I opted for the balcony. (Note: Someone found his glasses on the floor and handed them back unbroken).

Alright, music time. Art Brut took the stage with “Pump Up the Volume,” the first track off their most recent release, It’s a Bit Complicated. Argos appeared in a loose flannel shirt, hair combed to one side of his forehead. A screen above the stage announced each song title and cued the audience when to applaud.

Gimmicky or not, Art Brut thrilled for the entirety of its 50 minute set that mixed 15 tracks from both the new album and 2005's critically acclaimed Bang Bang Rock & Roll. Argos, though admitting to being “a little bit drunk,” prowled the stage, jumped rope with the microphone cord, and even crawled down into the audience, bouncing up and down as he parted the crowd from the front to the rear during “Modern Art.”

“That was terrible defense,” Argos berated the crowd after retaking the stage, with helping hands from the crowd. “I managed to buy a hot dog and a 1990s T-shirt and collect the change and tip the bartender. You are rubbish at stopping me from getting to the back.”

The rest of the band kept up with Argos’ antics. Guitarist Jasper Future shredded with eyes and mouth wide open, and drummer “Mikey From the Block” took the opportunity in between songs to strike poses with drumstick in the air and hand on hip. Though the set felt somewhat calculated underneath its raggedness (the entire band froze for a moment while Mikey kept beat with the bass drum, for example), Art Brut’s joy for performing was irresistible. When they finally left the stage after “Formed a Band,” it felt as if the headlining act, not an opener, had just finished a show. This would be a tough performance to follow.

The Hold Steady kicked off its set with “Hornets! Hornets!” from second album Separation Sunday. Singer Craig Finn, wearing a button-down shirt and thick glasses, danced, snapped his fingers in glee, and mouthed unintelligible words in between his lyrics. This was the penultimate gig on a long tour, and the strain showed in the performance. Finn remembered two dates from 2006 the band had played in Baltimore and Washington and said they had been on the road ever since. Maybe it was time to go home.

With most of its lyrics about fucking, fighting, and consuming copious quantities of drugs and alcohol, life as a member of The Hold Steady could be tiring. At least two bottles of scotch, a bottle of wine, and some beers were consumed by the band during an 80-minute set that heavily favored tracks from Separation and newest album Boys and Girls in America. If this was a nightly trick, spleens and liver could be worn out.

Beyond the Thin Lizzy licks and Springsteen swells, it is Finn’s wry wordplay that makes The Hold Steady special. Lyrics such as “Tramps like us/ And we like tramps” and “When they say killer whales/ They mean they whaled on him 'til they killed him” show both a vicious precision and intelligent appropriation of pop references. But as the night wore on, Finn got drunker and drunker (or maybe more and more high, who really knows?).

Now a boozy disposition is one thing, but when it interferes with rather than adds to a performance, there is a problem. The band returned for an encore with “First Night.” There is a beautiful section of the ballad when Finn sings “Don’t bother talking to the guys with their hot soft eyes/ They’re already taken” over a swell of Franz Nicolay’s piano and a chorus of “Boys and Girls in America.” On the album, this is an emotional crescendo not reached in many other songs in the band’s oeuvre. But here, Finn was too out of sorts, and he garbled the lyrics so badly that even Shane MacGowan would have cringed.

The encore ended with “How a Resurrection Really Feels” and “Killer Parties.” At one point, as Finn tried to play his guitar, Tad Kubler (guitarist) looked at him and shook his head for him to give it up. Then Kubler climbed up on the speakers, a bunch of fans hit the stage, and hell broke loose as Finn just looked around in a stupor. It has been a recent tradition for Finn to end a show proclaiming how much joy it is for him to perform each night. Usually it is a joy to see them live. That night, he could barely get it out, but after a minute or two of stuttering, he did. Time to take a rest, boys. Time to chill out. There will be joy another night.

[Photo: Marina Chavez]

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