There are many things to love about the way The Hold Steady does business in the live setting. Among them: The no-nonsense equipment setup, the case or so of Tecate that waits on stage, and the band’s apparent inability to offer anything less than maximum effort. They can turn any situation into a dizzying life experience full of the vibrant characters and relatable tribulations that inhabit Craig Finn’s songs. Outside the temple of rock that is the Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro citizens made their way through an unusually sleepy Sunday night. But inside, about 250 enthusiastic fans, happy to host one of the band’s smattering of tour dates, experienced another exhausting show with the hyperactive Craig Finn and his equally amped band mates.
For the non-devoted, The Hold Steady’s mix of Springsteen-style confessional songs, triumphantly evangelical rock and roll, and mighty hunks of guitar can be disorienting. The band has certainly experienced the ebb and flow of fickle musical tastes, and therefore audience size, over their decade of existence. But they’ve rarely sounded as polished as they did this night, and they’re back to writing new songs and making more believers out of bystanders.
Finn’s belligerent (if finely honed by age) persona still steers the band’s ship through cult-classic ragers like "Constructive Summer," "Hot Soft Light," and "Chips Ahoy," all of which were among the show’s phenomenal opening salvo. There are new tunes washing ashore as well, such as the instantly likable "Look Alive" and even a yet-to-be-named gem that surfaced before the closing run. The band is slowly working them into the litany of established showstoppers, and there’s sure to be more set-list tinkering as the band finishes up their new record.
After the "untitled" tune, the rest of the set was a showcase of anthemic alt-rock, a sort of "greatest hits" of the band’s live realm. One hair-rasing, arm-rasing, fist-pumping tune after another comprised the homestretch. "The Weekenders" set an emotional peak before "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" made everything feel dirty again, "Sequestered in Memphis" and "Massive Nights" rolled along at a breakneck pace, and "Southtown Girls" inspired a joyous sing-along and made for a flawless set closer. Guitarist Tad Kubler’s take on the song’s central riff was so thick as to be tangible, and if it truly were, it surely would have dented the roof. Perhaps drunk on their own musical power (and a bit of Tecate), the band dished out an explosive and gripping encore, pairing the riveting self-referential wordplay of "Positive Jam" with the inspiring grind of "Stay Positive". With a new album on the way and the reconfigured band now firing on all cylinders, it looks like The Hold Steady are ready to resume bringing rock concert perfection to the world on a full-time basis.