Thursday, November 13th, 2008
Rock & Roll Means Well – The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady in Toronto
Frank YangA quick survey of the audience at the Phoenix on Tuesday revealed hoarse voices, sweat-soaked (and beer-soaked clothes) and beaming faces… and that was only after the opener. It was the Toronto stop of the Rock & Roll Means Well tour featuring Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady as co-headliners traversing the continent (though this was the only Canadian date), one extended guitar solo at a time.
There had been some debate – some instigated by me – as to which of the two acts should have been deemed the headliner. Sure, the alternating nights solution they went with was the most fair and logical, but considering that both had devout fan bases who could probably have filled the venue on their own there was sure to be some disagreement about who should have the honour of closing things out, to say nothing of the longer set and encore. From my POV, while I love both bands I’d probably call myself a bigger Hold Steady fan but having seen them both many times (though neither in almost two years), I would have been pretty happy either way.
As it happens, the coin flip guaranteed Toronto a Truckers wrap-up and so The Hold Steady, an act whose live shows are well-known as being as much a party as those their songs are about, were up first. Now though there were just the two bands on the bill, the dynamic of the show felt much like a festival where in order to maintain some sort of balance, sets have to be adjusted and truncated from their usual form. And in this case, the Hold Steady were working with a rigid set time they had to make the most of. To that end, they came out guitars blazing and rarely let up for the next hour fifteen. And while that sounds like it might be a good idea, in actuality it didn’t allow them the sort of pacing that would have served them best.
The non-stop guitar riffing and maniacal stage antics from frontman Craig Finn were exhilarating and engaging, but also exhausting to experience without a break. Not helping was a mix that tended to bury Finn’s vocals and as good as they are, without his wonderful mile-a-minute words, The Hold Steady are really just an exceptional bar band. Sound issues did improve as their set went on, though, thankfully. I hadn’t seen them since October 2006, the last of three times seeing them in just three months, and I was hoping that Finn had come up with some fresh between-song banter since then. Alas, the need to cram as much material into the allotted time as possible – 18 songs in total drawing heavily from this year’s Stay Positive – didn’t leave much time for chit-chat or even to take a breath, though the broad grin on Finn’s face was plenty of evidence that it wasn’t all business, not at all. Don’t interpret the above points as implying that I didn’t enjoy their set – I love their songs, their sing-along songs, and when surrounded by scores of fans doing exactly that, it’s hard not to love it – but as terrific as the show and tour sounded on paper, it became obvious that it wouldn’t be without some compromises. After all, the very term “co-headline” is a bit of an oxymoron, is it not?
The set change took the better part of an hour, in which time the audience make-up also turned over. Hold Steady fans were replaced with Trucker fans, who all seemed much more hardcore about their heroes (those of us who were both just stayed put) – it was a decidedly different vibe. While the Hold Steady have a definite “it band” cachet right now, the Truckers have built their fanbase with years and years of hard work and touring. Not to imply that The Hold Steady haven’t, but the Trucker fans were obviously in it for life. And I’m pleased to note that while things got suitably rowdy for both sets (moreso for the Truckers), it wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as I’d feared heading in. Except that little dude with the tattoo.
This was the first time I’d seen the Truckers play post-Isbell, and wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy it as he’d been my favourite Truckers writer over the last couple records. Their latest, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, didn’t stick with me as much as the others and I suspect that his absence was part of that. So with his and his songs’ absence, the set was a decidedly different one from the last time I saw them – also October 2006. Drawing only from the songbooks of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley (plus two from Shona Tucker), it reached much further back into their back catalog to Pizza Deliverance and Gangstabilly – two records I don’t really know – and thus made for a more unfamiliar show than I’d anticipated. And while The Hold Steady’s set started out turned up to 10 and stayed there, the Truckers kicked off with an huge and ominous “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” but mostly took advantage of their longer set length to slow things down and stretch them out, giving their songs and the characters that dwelled within some space to breathe, building up over the course of the set to a massive climax of “Ronnie And Neil” (happy birthday Neil, btw) and “Hell No I Ain’t Happy”. Oh the guitars, oh the solos.
Reports from previous dates on the tour had the bands collaborating, regardless of who was closing, so it wasn’t any surprise when Craig Finn joined the Truckers for their encore. I can’t say that he particularly fit in, though, with his bounding around the stage whilst clapping and mugging during “Marry Me” more than a little out of place, like a little kid high on pixie sticks running around while the grown-ups took care of business. He settled down and contributed guitar and vocals on the last two numbers, “Let There Be Rock” and a barnburning cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died”, not that the Truckers necessarily needed the assistance – they know how to close out a show.
Interestingly, while neither band put on the best show that I’ve seen either of them give, the combination of the two – as logical a pairing as it was incongruous – made it feel like a real occasion. The sum of the parts being greater than the whole and all that. And the whole question about “who should headline” was, at least in my mind, obvious. Whereas The Hold Steady embody the spirit of giddy youth and the mistakes and mishaps that come with it, the Drive-By Truckers are about life and experience and being worn down by it all, yet still standing up. The running order of the night made perfect sense like this, and after the Truckers’ set I couldn’t imagine anyone having to follow them, or even wanting anyone to. They have a weight, a presence, a gravitas that demands respect. I’m genuinely curious to those who’ve seen the Hold Steady-closed shows, what was it like? Do they manage to make it seem like a no-brainer that THEY close things out? Gotta admit, it’s a nice problem to have.
Free! and CITYNews talk to Patterson Hood, while The Toronto Star and The Philadelphia Inquirer have interviews with Craig Finn and Boise Weekly with Tad Kubler. Chart has a glowing review of The Hold Steady’s set on Tuesday but wasn’t able to stick around for the Truckers’ set. Sucker.
Photos: Drive-By Truckers, The Hold Steady @ The Phoenix – November 11, 2008
MP3: Drive-By Truckers – “Zip City”
MP3: The Hold Steady – “Chips Ahoy!”
MP3: The Hold Steady – “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
MP3: The Hold Steady – “The Swish”
Video: Drive-By Truckers – “Never Gonna Change”
Video: The Hold Steady – “Chips Ahoy!”
Video: The Hold Steady – “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
Video: The Hold Steady – “The Swish”
MySpace: Drive-By Truckers
MySpace: The Hold Steady