About one year ago, the Hold Steady dropped by Cleveland just before the official release of Heaven is Whenever. The Beachland show was heavy on cuts from the new album, the band's fifth — a generally so-so effort on par with Stay Positive.
Lop off the mediocre songs from each, fuse the two together, and you'd have an 11-song masterpiece. Instead there were only a handful of gems, even as the Craig Finn and crew garnered the ever-important buzz, sales, and a more diverse audience. All deserved, mind you — the Hold Steady, after all, are a real rock band playing real rock music with a real, genuine rock frontman.
They came to town once again Saturday night at the House of Blues, playing one of only two U.S. dates on a spring tour. The larger venue — they've only played the Grog and Beachland in previous Forest City swings — was suited for the gesticulating, energetic mannerisms of Finn. What worked well in close quarters somehow worked better in the by-comparison cavernous HOB.
The Steady's new fanboy empire were in full effect: throbbing in the pit, chanting back the choruses, pointing and pumping to Finn's calls for response.
And they went with what they did best (read: early stuff.) The set list was dominated with selections from Boys and Girls in America and Separation Sunday, with only four picks from Heaven is Whenever and just a best-of roll-through of Stay Positive. And therein lies the promise: the greatest hits of the last two albums hold up evenly against "Chips Ahoy" and "Killer Parties" and the rest, even a year, or four, after their release. The canon of great sing-along songs and poems about the troubled boys and girls of America is still growing, if slower than we thought it would when the Hold Steady first broke out.
Whenever the sixth album emerges, who knows whether it will be another half-good, half-bad tease, but we'll be anxiously awaiting it nonetheless. After all, heaven is whenever...