Two years ago, the Hold Steady kicked off their tour in support of their fourth album, Stay Positive, in Cleveland. It was a relatively restrained show. After a blistering and drunken Grog Shop performance in 2006 (in which half the audience was onstage with the band by the end of the night), the 2008 Beachland Ballroom gig was sort of a letdown.
Frontman Craig Finn had toned down his mannerisms (like singing a foot away from the mic), and the band played things relatively safe as it tried out new songs from Stay Positive, which was released only two days before the show. They were tight, tentative and sober. And they seemed so professional.
The Hold Steady must like Cleveland, because they were back at the Beachland again last night, testing out songs from their latest album, Heaven Is Whenever, which comes out on May 4. The tour started a week and a half ago, and the band is playing a handful of dates before Heaven Is Whenever is released.
Last night’s 105-minute concert was heavy on Heaven tracks (it seemed like they were threaded into the set at a rate of every other song), but there were plenty of favorites to keep fans from getting too restless. And unlike much of the 2008 gig, the show rarely settled into a listless groove.
The Hold Steady sounded heavy onstage — heavier than they ever have. A new rhythm guitarist (making up for Finn, who wore a guitar all night but played it maybe twice) helped beef up their sound. But a touring keyboardist was no replacement for Franz Nicolay, who left the band earlier this year. Nicolay’s high harmonies and swooshing keyboard fills were missed on older songs like “You Can Make Him Like You,” “Southtown Girls” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.”
Still, the new heft suited “Constructive Summer,” “Stuck Between Stations” and “Chips Ahoy!” And Heaven songs “Rock Problems,” “We Can Get Together” and “Hurricane J” slid into the set like they’ve always belonged there. The concert was sort of turning point for the band, which managed to sound tight without being stuffy. —Michael Gallucci (follow me on Twitter @mgallucci)