The Hold Steady at the Bearsville Theater, Woodstock

The Hold Steady rolled into Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater Thursday night as part of a club tour in advance of their fifth album, Heaven Is Whenever. Given that the usual fare in Woodstock is either jam bands, singer-songwriters, or retro folkies, the Hold Steady’s aggressively contemporary take on bar band blues and seventies rock arrangements was not to be missed by anyone who still cares for a bit of energy in their live fare, though it was equally endemic of the Woodstock demographic that the gig was a long way from sold out, and this from a band that’s just announced a headlining show at New York’s Beacon Theater.

But so what? There was a crowd of obsessed fanatics down the front that treated the Hold Steady like the rock ‘n’ roll heroes they openly long to be, and behind them, an equally attentive, if slightly older, layer of observers. Throughout the impressively unrelenting 90-minute gig, front man Craig Finn delivered his Springsteen-esque storylines in the energetically nerdy manner that makes people either love him or hate him. Personally, I lean to the former: if you took away Finn’s everyman image and lunatic moves and replaced it with something more conventionally “appealing,” the Hold Steady would lose all sense of irony and indie, and with it their appeal to anyone outside of an inherently narrow-minded bar band scene. And I’m not the only one finds Finn’s enthusiasm positively endearing – his following down the front, oddly enough comprised mostly of the tattoo’d, muscled young sorts that you might suspect would kick sand in his face if they encountered him on the beach, clearly felt likewise, one youth in a Subhumans-endorned leather jacket constantly throwing his arm in the air as if trying to replicate the Hold Steady’s logo. (And as you can tell from a couple of the pictures, he succeeded.)

Alongside Finn, long-serving lead guitarist Tad Kubler was joined by an incongruously bearded additional six-string slinger who sounded perfectly par for the course but looked liked he’d wandered in from Spinal Tap, while back of stage, the new keyboard player added welcome Hammond washes to the solid foundation laid by bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake. As for the lyrics, true, much of Finn’s story-telling gets lost under the densely packed layers of loveably clumsy riffs, but try labeling that a complaint to those who jumped around as energetically to new songs “Rock Problems,” “Hurricane J” and “The Weekenders” (click on song titles to hear them) as they did to the ‘hits’ “Sequestered in Memphis” and “Boys and Girls in America.” Me, I had a blast. Selected photos below; click on any of them to see full screen.

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