"I usually use this part of the song to talk about baseball, but I bet you don't want to talk about baseball this year," jabbed Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn during the band's rendition of "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," to which the raucous and dedicated sold-out crowd loudly booed. Finn, the affable and often outspoken frontman and avid Twins fan, had to know he was going to elicit a defiant response with that cheap shot, but outside of that moment, he had most of the sweaty Beachland Ballroom worked to a frenzy. This was not a show for the casual fan, though, as the Hold Steady frantically made its way through an alcohol-fueled hour-and-half-long set while fighting a rising temperature inside the club that at times made the show unbearable.
For a band on the up-and-up, the Hold Steady couldn't quite play to the entire ballroom and struggled to connect to the back of the room. Part of this problem was Finn, who can be a polarizing presence at center stage. He at times tries to sound too much like Bruce Springsteen, and while he can pull off some of the Boss' guttural moans, Finn lacks any of his true singing ability. There are only so many nasally and dull spoken-word vocals you can endure.
Lack of air conditioning and Finn's voice aside, those passionate disciples that knew the Hold Steady's catalog weren't disappointed. They sang and clapped along to "Chips Ahoy!" and threw their hands in the air to "Constructive Summer." And with Cleveland being the first of the band's summer-tour shows in support of its recently released album, Stay Positive, it did sound tour-tight and extremely well-rehearsed. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay adapted his playing to each song, using a harpsichord effect on "One for the Cutters," then grabbing an accordion for "Lord, I'm Discouraged." Guitarist Tab Kubler was just as impressive, strapping on a double-neck guitar for "Discouraged" and punctuating "Navy Sheets" with a lengthy solo, proving the group could just about live up to its billing as "America's best rock band."
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Time Warner Cable Amphitheater, Tuesday, July 15
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant owe a lot to Cleveland. If the lead singer of Led Zeppelin and the bluegrass star hadn't met at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute concert a couple of years back, they might not have gotten together and released Raising Sand. The two brought their mix of rock, bluegrass and country — along with almost a dozen instruments — to Cleveland for their first performance in the city. Although Plant hasn't performed regularly since his days in Zeppelin, he didn't seem out of practice. He's a bit older, with a few more wrinkles, but Plant's stage persona hasn't changed much since the '70s. He still dances, shakes his mane of blond curls and commands the attention of everyone. Krauss, however, took a little longer to warm up. Standing next to Plant, she looked awkward and out of place, singing quietly and barely moving.
Plant and Krauss opened the show with the psychedelic and soulful "Rich Woman." Instead of playing another song off the album, they performed a slow, delicate version of Zeppelin's "Black Dog." Secretly, everyone hoped for a Zeppelin song, but no one expected it so soon, nor did anyone expect to hear it played on a banjo. The two also sang several songs by themselves. Krauss may not be as eccentric as Plant, but when she sang "Through the Morning, Through the Night" in her melancholy but beautiful voice, she caught the crowd's attention and kept it for two more songs, after which she said a sweet "Thank you, folks." While Plant's voice sounded smooth and subdued through the first few songs, he reminded the audience who he was as he sang "Fortune Teller," complete with lead singer swagger and scratchy vocals. Plant and Krauss came back together for the last few songs, including "Please Read the Letter." Although there was no "Stairway to Heaven," the two did sing another Zeppelin song, "The Battle of Evermore." It was a bit jolting to hear Plant sing the song with a female bluegrass musician, but to hear Krauss let out a few wailing lines of pure Zeppelin didn't sound too bad either. — Brittany Moseley
Blossom Music Center, Thursday, July 17
It was a hot Thursday night at Blossom, but that didn't stop feverish fans from flocking to see sensitive pop-guitar-god John Mayer. While devotees blanketed the lawn and packed the pavilion, playing Slip 'n' Slide in their seats and anxiously awaiting the sun to go down, Mayer finally set foot onstage. Wearing cargo pants and a gray wifebeater that displayed a colorful tattoo and some surprisingly cut biceps (looks like those workout sessions have paid off), he kept it simple and started things off with "Good Love Is on the Way," an upbeat rock track by the John Mayer Trio. Asking fans if they ever "wanted to be more," Mayer broke out into his radio-friendly song "Bigger Than My Body," followed by slower-tempo music off his latest studio album, Continuum. After an enjoyable acoustic version of the Tom Petty tune "Free Fallin'," Mayer sped things up with his ever-cheesy, Grammy-award-winning "Waiting on the World to Change," a political song that he said is about "doing everything and doing nothing" at the same time. As the color of his shirt gradually turned three shades darker, the night became more low-key. I don't know whether it was the humidity or what, but Mayer seemed to get more serious, breaking into the blues and relying less on the comedic banter.
In what he described as his "19-year-old blues," Mayer played "Why Georgia" and followed it up with some whistling and thrusting action during "Vultures," showing off and playing one-handed at times. "Music is like visiting the best, most colorful parts of your brain," Mayer stated (something he should know about, being that it is said he has color synaesthesia, or the ability to hear colors), as he ended the night with "Gravity." Although this was Mayer's longest song, it pulled fans into a mesmerizing trance, making it evident that the blues is where his heart is. During the song, Mayer invited "guys who have never sung before" to join in, while also admitting that he has grown up and now believes in love. What could have been "any given Thursday" turned out to be a mellow night of escapist rock 'n' roll. Brett Dennen and Colbie Caillat opened, and of the two, Dennen fared better. Labeled one of "10 Artists to Watch" by Rolling Stone magazine, he sounded a bit like Citizen Cope. Caillat sounded nervous and sang too low for her vocal range, though she finally let loose during The Jackson Five's "I Want You Back." — Lauren Yusko
Vans Warped Tour
Time Warner Cable Amphitheater, Thursday, July 17
By noon everyone was feeling the heat. T-shirts were off, bottles of overpriced water were opened and weird tan lines were forming. No one let it get in the way of a good time, though. Hundreds of pairs of Converses shuffled around the converted parking lots, gathering around stages to see tour veterans like the Bouncing Souls and Pennywise and newcomers like Charlotte Sometimes and Say Anything. Hordes of sweaty teenagers came to grab as much free stuff as they could — besides the music — as they listened to young bands peddle their EPs and visited dozens of tents hosted by Vans, Epitaph Records and Alternative Press. Chicago band The Academy Is . . . was one of the first to perform, putting on a show worthy of the main stage. Lead singer William Beckett was like Mick Jagger in training as he strutted across the stage, singing songs from the band's two albums. Andrew McMahon of Jack's Mannequin shared vocals with Beckett for one song, and Beckett did the same during the Jack's Mannequin set. McMahon, one of two musicians to bring a piano on tour, pounded the keys as he sang his introspective pop songs. The other musician to bring a piano was Matt Thiessen from Relient K. The Canton band made everyone forget the miserable heat as the group sang its brand of infectious, tongue-in-cheek songs.
Those looking for a tougher sound checked out As I Lay Dying. "It's good to see some metalheads here on Warped Tour," said lead singer Tim Lambesis in between thrashing songs. Fellow metal band Every Time I Die was so into its set of Southern-rock-inspired songs that the band didn't notice its guitarist taking a moment to vomit offstage. Representing the punk side of the tour was Against Me! Dressed all in black, the band played its leftist political anthems, complete with fist-pumping and crowd-surfing. Those looking for a lighter sound headed to the Hurley stage to listen to Florida bands Mayday Parade and We the Kings, which both write catchy songs about growing up in a small town. After eight hours and more than 70 performances, the mass of smelly, sunburnt concertgoers slowly trickled out, leaving articles of clothing and empty cans of Rockstar energy drink behind. — Brittany Moseley