Hold Steady: Rob Grabowski / Retna Ltd.
Gilbert Cruz
October 04, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The best bar band in America is really so much more than that

If you’re regularly referred to in this nation’s media as America’s #1 bar band, it’s mandatory that you pop open a can of beer and spurt foam all over your audience. So, one song in (”Stuck Between Stations”) at the Hold Steady’s first gig of their fall tour last Sunday, at Irving Plaza in New York City, in support of third record Boys and Girls in America (out this week) and lead singer Craig Finn does exactly that, shouting out, ”Hi, we’re the Hold Steady. What are you guys doing here?”

Having seen these guys a handful of times now, I’m convinced that Finn is one of the most charismatic front men around, so watchable that I realized only two months ago that the band’s bassist has been serving me drinks at my favorite bar for more than a year. (Fitting, given the Hold Steady’s aforementioned designation.) I just never noticed him onstage. Finn regularly claps frantically and bounces around like a kid who just got an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas. He’s also got this sweaty Midwestern preacher vibe going on as he gets worked up and reaches his arms out to the crowd and eats up their love. To be honest, he probably would have been a better Willie Stark than Sean Penn.

To make a possibly unnecessary comparison — and shameless allusion to my last concert review — the Hold Steady succeed where the Killers fail, as both try to channel Springsteen, but only the former have the blue-collar chops to pull it off. Finn and double-neck-wielding guitarist Tad Kubler look like guys who have had their share of tallboys and debauchery — and thank goodness for the lack of eyeliner.

The set is heavy on new material, with more of the grand piano/guitar jams that were on hinted on in 2004’s Separation Sunday, from the surprisingly pretty ballad ”First Night” to album- and show-closer ”Southtown Girls” — while throwing in the all the old songs about their hometown Minneapolis, Charlemagne, Catholicism, Holly, and getting wasted in various ways. It was loud, sloppy fun and had the best song dedication (for ”Massive Night”) in recent memory, to ”anyone who vomited at their senior prom, or anyone who vomited at their junior prom after doing drugs and their date didn’t talk to them for the rest of the night.” Ah, to be 17 forever.

Check out the Hold Steady’s fall tour here.

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