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Concert Review: The Hold Steady and Illinois in SF, 5/31/07

With its canon of songs about drinking and drugs, music fests and chillout tents, and redemption and rebirth, The Hold Steady approach the act of partying with an almost religious fervor. Not surprisingly, the band's concert at Slim's last week was no exception. In fact, the show followed the pattern poetically laid out in "Hot Soft Light," from the band's newest album, Boys and Girls in America:

"It started recreational
ended kinda medical
it came on hot and soft
and then it tightened up its tentacles."

Opening act Illinois kicked things off with an almost overwhelming air of joviality, doing everything a good opening band should do. They played a blistering set of brilliantly perky pop songs that made everyone pay attention as opposed to chit-chatting before the main event. Even more endearing was that Illinois seemed just as psyched to see the Hold Steady as I was. To read what happened next,

Like Illinois, the Hold Steady managed to bring both raucous edge and irresistible charm to the performance. It helps that frontman Craig Finn and pianist Franz Nicolay — looking like a college professor and an old-timey pugilist, respectively — simply ooze charisma, like they're in a nearly constant state of fun-having.

The set, which featured a balance of songs off the new album and from the two previous records, was almost frantically, manically happy. The crowd bobbed up and down with a barrage of blistering guitars and careening piano keys.

But just when the listeners' bemused faces transformed into full-on beaming grins, Finn would reach out like a televangelist and remind us about the darker side to his songs. For instance, after getting the room chanting the "whoa-oh-oh-oh" refrain on "Massive Nights," Finn paused dramatically to deliver the last lines: "She had the gun in her mouth and she was shooting up in her dreams / when the chaperon said we'd been crowned the king and the queen."

Then, during a stunning encore featuring "Killer Parties" and "How a Resurrection Really Feels," the crowd rushed the stage and suddenly the Hold Steady were surrounded by about 40 fans. They swayed to the music and sang along; one guy even commandeered one of the guitars. The effect, like so many Hold Steady songs, was at once triumphant and just a little bit scary.


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