Sunday night at Berbati’s Pan, I was stoked. One of my absolute favorite bands, Brooklyn’s the Hold Steady, was playing and I was sure that, based on a laundry list of positive live reviews, they were going to rock. I had seen the band play “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on, of all shows, “Last Call With Carson Daly,” and the energy was palpable enough to feel through my television set. Lead singer Craig Finn twitched and shook with energy, enunciating syllables with hand gestures like a rapper. And the band was tightly wound, earning their comparisons to the fabled E-Street Band.
The first opener Sunday night was Tim Fite, whose country songs were backed by keyboards and programmed drums, along with a video slideshow that played behind him and his keyboardist. Fite was a bit of a stand up comedian, telling the crowd if they didn’t clap, their fingers might “rebel and walk right out of the club.” To avoid this, Fite had the crowd count their fingers to make sure none had rebelled and headed for the exit. He also tried his hand at rapping in a few songs, sounding a little like a drunk Southern rapper, ending most lines with “motherfucker” while rhyming the second to last word of each line.
Overall, Fite didn’t move me much, his between-song banter far more entertaining than his songs.
Second up was Toronto’s Constantines, a band I’d heard of but never listened to. They absolutely killed. Frontman Bryan Webb has a deep, raspy voice that reminded me of early Bruce Springsteen and the band rocked like Fugazi crossed with Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. One of the most amazing aspects of the band’s set was how easy it was for me pick out hooks and melodies, even without ever having heard the songs before. Though I can’t list what songs the band played, the hour-long set seemed to span the band’s history, with some songs sounding ragged but tuneful (their newer work) and others sounding angular and math rock-ish (their earlier stuff). Listening to the Constantines’ insanely powerful set, I couldn’t help wondering why the band wasn’t more popular. Something is wrong with a popular audience that makes those goofy Scotsmen in Franz Ferdinand big enough to get played on VH1, but forces the Constantines to open for a cult band from Brooklyn. I’m not trying to knock the Hold Steady, I’ll do that later, but the Constantines are a band that deserve a bigger audience. They play the sort of rock and roll that will sound vital ten years from now and you can’t say that about the Kaiser Chiefs or Franz Ferdinand.
When the Hold Steady took to the stage after some technical tinkering, I was psyched. The band launched into “Banging Camp” off Separation Sunday and the crowd just lost it. I readied myself to scream along with the lyrics, only to realize Finn was mangling line after line like a pissed-off Bob Dylan. A line like “When they say great white sharks/They mean the kind in big black cars” became “When they say great white sharks/They mean thekindinbigblackcars.” Finn’s lines are so long that if he screws up a word or two he has to jam the end of the line into the tail-end of the bar. Since the guy has no voice whatsoever, it becomes very important that he says his lines in the right rhythm. But over and over, Finn stumbled over lines and the band had to do their best to compensate for his awkward cadence. And when Finn wasn’t singing/speaking, he was running around the stage clapping his hands and pointing to various audience members. While this was fun at first, it soon became annoying, turning every song into a “rockin’ tune” we’re all supposed to lose our minds to. One of my favorite things about the Hold Steady is how they’re able to balance irony and satire with genuine human pathos. Songs like “How a Resurrection Really Feels” and “Don’t Let Me Explode” are funny, but they’re also sad. This wasn’t at all apparent in the live show. Finn sang every song the same, his goofy antics overshadowing any of the song’s emotions. And though the crowd around me was screaming and jumping around, I just felt stiffed. There were even moments I felt embarrassed to be a fan of the goofy band onstage. Leaving the show, it occurred to me it would be at least a couple of months before I could listen to Separation Sunday without conjuring up how disappointing the band was live – and that’s a shame.
Check out more photos of the show in the slideshow. Constantines