The Hold Steady, Art Brut and the 1990s — 11.20.07, The 9:30 Club, Washington DC and 11.21.07, Terminal Five, NYC
The 1990s have just completed their set and thrown their set list (written on a paper plate) into the crowd of Washington DC’s The 9:30 Club. A group of three girls directly in front of me have caught the plate and are currently giggling over their newly acquired treasure.
I’m given cause to wonder if the girls are even there to see the 1990s but rather to see the better known acts Art Brut and/or The Hold Steady instead. It is certain that for most of the audience the latter is the case.
It is no matter because the 1990s are rock solid. Singer/guitarist Jackie McKeown even manages to recover from having his fly down for the entire first song. Where many of the 1990s songs on their debut album, Cookies, sounded poppy, in their live incarnations, the songs take on a grittier, garage-rock sound. Even weaker songs like “Weed” prove to be compelling when played live. McKeown’s solo style, the centerpiece in the live rendition of “Weed”, is organic and dirty, perfectly suited to the band’s music. Drummer Michael McGaughrin’s strained backing vocals add additional richness to the songs. Frequently running out of breath, McGaughrin jokes with the audience after most every song. At one point McKeown remarks that the band must truly be a mesmerizing live act to a man directly in front of him who is talking on his cell phone. McKeown asks the man who he is talking to, and he replies “Taylor”. McKeown is sure not to forget Taylor, and when the band plays “You’re Supposed To Be My Friend”, he cleverly makes allusion to the cell-phone conversation in the lyrics. The standout song of the night, though, is “Situation”, which the band introduces as their last number. Before starting the song, they modify the statement by adding that the crowd needn’t worry because the song is a long one. Played live, “Situation” evokes an underlying darkness only hinted at on the album.
(If the three girls in front of me with the plate don’t know who the 1990s are, I hope that they will go out after the show and pick up the album.) Briefly, I look away to Tim who is socializing with The Hold Steady message board fans (the Unified Scene1). When I look back to the stage, two different girls, not part of the original girl trio, now have the 1990s set list paper plate. One of them, herein referred to as the Blond Girl, explains to her cohort the significance of the plate. It strikes me odd that the original owners of the plate so quickly disposed of it. However, it soon becomes apparent this isn’t the case when the three girls start questioning everyone around them about the whereabouts of the MIA plate. I look at the thieving Blond Girl who has now hidden the plate and adopted a stone face. I contemplate alerting the group of girls to what has really occurred, but I’m too caught up in the drama of the whole situation. If the three girls who were in front of me are reading this edition of Comixxx Review, the Blonde Girl stole the plate.
When Art Brut finally comes on, their Powerpoint seminar-styled performance is the highlight of the night. Later, David Malitz of the Washington Post’s Post Rock column will criticize Art Brut by writing, “…the fact remains that you need to own exactly one of their albums (last year’s “Bang Bang Rock and Roll”) and you need to see them live exactly once. After that it’s just overkill.” Of course, at Comixxx Review we’ll beg to differ and write that, if anything, modern rock needs more musicians like Art Brut who not only thumb their noses at elitist rock-posturing, but put on one hell of a live show. Argos’s witty banter, ridiculous footwear (mismatched socks, a staple of his performance) and rallying of the rest of Art Brut, is so good we’ll go back for a second night to see them at New York City’s Terminal Five2. The best Art Brut song is “Modern Art”, where Argos leaps unannounced into the audience and pogos about.
When The Hold Steady finally takes the stage, the band is a little slap happy. Craig Finn dances like a maniac as usual, Galen Polivka is now handing out money instead of cigarettes, Franz Nicolay’s waxed mustache seems to have grown, Bobby Drake drums (is he back there?), and even Tad Kubler feels impelled to seize the day by climbing the amp stacks at the apex of the gig. It is not just the band who is a little tipsy, but the audience too, in particular one offensive and memorable six and half foot oaf. He shows up shortly before the band goes on and sticks multiple cigarettes in his mouth. When the show starts, The 9:30 Club’s security is nowhere to be seen, and the inebriated clod proceeds to fall on small girls. When he deliberately knocks a fan’s glasses off, Tim becomes enraged, bear-hugs the guy and removes him from the dance floor. I send a text message to a friend: “Tim just forcibly ejected someone from the show.”
The Unified Scene derive their name from The Hold Steady song “Sweat Payne” off of the album Almost Killed Me: “I always dream about a unified scene. There’s James King and King James and James Dean. At a table in the corner of my unified scene.” ↩
The pictures for this review actually come from the Terminal Five gig. We had a photo pass to take pictures at The 9:30 Club. But there was a mixup and the situation was rectified for us for the Terminal Five show. ↩