Raising the Bar (Rock)

The Hold Steady + The Drive-By Truckers at the Orpheum, November 9, 2008
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  November 14, 2008

Drive-By Truckers

On the "Rock and Roll Means Well" tour, Drive-By Truckers and the Hold Steady upgraded their respective brands of quintessential American bar rock with a number of arena-rock trimmings: for-hire horn trio, light show, mechanical drum sound, etc. Taking opening duties for the night (the bands alternate), Drive-By Truckers' 80-minute set was a lot like one of their albums: a little too long and a little too heavy on Michael Cooley songs. Cooley and co-frontman Patterson Hood mostly alternated songs, and even Cooley's apologists (guilty) couldn't help but note the want of momentum on his cuts. Switching off between grandstanding roadhouse rock and earnest confessionals, he began his songs with a welcome dose of Mick Jagger bluster but unraveled quickly into inert Southern caricature, arbitrarily over-twanging every few syllables. (He did manage to carry one of his best tracks, Decoration Day's freewheeling "Marry Me," though.) Hood, for his part, mastered the band's stew of honesty, revisionist history, and irony, his croaky pleas and spoken-word gravel reaching over the band's thick three-guitar attack (Shonna Tucker's bass was unintelligible) and up to the balcony.

Craig Finn and the Hold Steady sounded crisper and more cutthroat, seizing the disconnect between their drunk-punk ethic and their arena ambitions. Finn (with keyboardist Franz Nicolay, looking like a reject from the E Street Band) took the sentimental anthems of the band's last two albums and shouted them out into the crowd like they were in a friend's basement — never mind that you couldn't hear the vocals five rows back. Arms flailing, Finn carried himself as a dandy prophet, and tore through the band's radio hits ("Sequestered in Memphis," "Stuck Between Stations") quickly before juicing up their early, deconstructivist material ("Positive Jam") as the crowd sang along to every word. The obligatory all-hands-on-deck finale was muddy and strangely subdued, but Finn and company proved more than capable of leading an army of young drunks into battle.


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