LIVE: The Hold Steady – Limelight, Belfast

HS2 HS4 HS5 HS7 HS8You know some of those perfect combinations? Summers and holidays. De Niro and a screen. Hendrix and a guitar. Me and this article.

Well, I found another at the Limelight in the form of The Hold Steady, currently on tour for their recent album, Teeth Dreams, and support act, and fellow Brooklyn punk band, The So So Glos, who are coming off a tour with renowned punk band Stiff Little Fingers and promoting their 2013 album, Blowout.

The unmistakeable sound of The Hold Steady, particularly the contemporary, story-based lyrics and husky singing style of Craig Finn, paralleled with his erratic and energetic on-stage presence, was reflected effortlessly by The So So Glos, who commanded the stage in a similar fashion. The last time I’d seen The Hold Steady was back in 2010 while playing in Spring and Airbrake, and I still regard that as one of the greatest gigs I’ve been to, so I was more than eager to hear how The Hold Steady would perform four years and a member change later. With The So So Glos being a punk band and The Hold Steady primarily being a rock band, I was also very interested in seeing how these two groups would sound back to back, and if they would compliment or detriment the other. I apologise in advance if this article seems a tad biased, The Hold Steady are one of my favourite bands of all time, so I’m just a tiny bit excited to be doing a review on them. That being said, I will be critical.

The So So Glos got the crowd going throughout their set, most of which was of their recent album, Blowout. They played with a wild tenacity and catchy tunes that just got you hooked. I’ve never been one for modern punk, completely skipping that scene when growing up, but The So So Glos kind of make me regret that simply because of how they conduct themselves, or rather don’t conduct themselves, on stage. It’s clear that they are influenced by punk legends The Clash and even the likes of Stiff Little Fingers, their raw and edgy style, even if you’re not a fan, is at least one thing to admire. Engaging throughout each song, giving briefs or small stories to lead into the next, singer Alex Levine drew on the audience’s imagination at times to pave their way through the set, something which is seldom seen and even more rarely achieved. As a four piece consisting of three brothers, you can really sense the friendship and strong bonds on stage as they enjoy playing song after song. Ryan Levine and Matt Elkin stood on opposing sides with their guitars, feeding off each other’s energy as well as the crowds, drummer Zach Staggers thundered along, giving everyone that extra drive, while Alex Levine bounced between all three. By the end of their set there was little room to breathe, and that’s when it was time for The Hold Steady to make their appearance.

Within seconds of starting to play, lead man Craig Finn not only interacted with crowd with the typical formalities, he instantly tried to start a sing along to “Hornets! Hornet!” which was met with a short silence before the remainder of the song kicked in. This was the last time that happened as the crowd sang in high volume at every opportunity thereafter. Giving a great mix of songs from every album, The Hold Steady were relentless on the stage, never missing a beat, even when Finn lived up to his notorious reputation for forgetting some lyrics to songs. While this would normally spell doom for most other bands, it’s not the case with The Hold Steady as Finn was helped along by some of the more fervent of fans who laughed along and sang in his place. Neither did it matter when some feedback was produced from the mike and amp. Again some of these factors would cause people to slay a performance but that’s not the case here with The Hold Steady who encapsulate the audience so much so that any minor, or even major, slip ups are not only forgiven but completely unnoticed. This is largely helped with a huge set list and excellent output from the remaining member. Guitarists Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge worked well against each other, bringing a new feel to songs that were once laced with hyper keyboards, while drummer Bobby Drake and bassist Galen Polivka cruised through the set with ease and elegance.

Like The So So Glos before, Finn is a master at storytelling in order to bridge gaps and allow time to prepare for the next song. There’s no dead air on stage, except for when he forgets what to say. Things were made personal, it never seemed like it was a band and an audience, Finn and Levine made the night seem casual and in this similarity they really struck a common chord. This wasn’t like most other gigs packed out with strangers, it felt like a room of old friends getting together. Even though there have been, and will be, better sets to come over the years for both bands, that night was still great, and one of those rare moments when two seemingly conflicting bands emerge in what can only be described as a unified scene. Joe Smyth, GiggingNI.com