by Brad Tucker
The Rock and Roll Means Well tour made its way through New York City on an extended stay this weekend. The Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers co-headlined two shows at Terminal 5 in Manhattan. Two sets of relatively disparate fans showed up for each show, and mutual respect was in the air. On Thursday night The Hold Steady opened, and the Truckers brought it home. Friday night the bands switched roles.
For the Truckers’ part, the two shows were almost completely different. Friday’s set featured only about five repeats from Thursday’s headlining performance. The first night, the band came out with a few mid-tempo songs, and never developed a great rhythm from song to song. About halfway through their set they completely bogged down during a less-than-thrilling rendition of “Sands of Iwo Jima.” The night was more than saved by the encore, though.
As Hood explained on stage Thursday, the bands began a pen-pal friendship after he encountered Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler in New York City about a year ago. From there the two bands decided they had to tour together. Kubler was the first to join the Truckers on stage during Thursday’s encore, for the Mike Cooley rocker “Gravity’s Gone.” Next, Craig Finn and keyboardist Franz Nicolay jumped into the action. “Let There Be Rock” featured Finn chiming in where ever he knew the words, and the night was closed with a raucous cover of Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died.”
On Friday night Drive-By Truckers opened with “Lookout Mountain” and smashed their way through an almost entirely new set. They threw in some less common live numbers, “Wednesday” and Southern Rock Opera‘s “Wallace.” Hood was on point with a few between-song ramblings, and bassist. Shonna Tucker held her own both nights with one turn at the microphone. Still, the absence of former guitarist Jason Isbell is sometimes felt. About a year and a half after his departure from the group, there are times where the band could use his voice and his guitar. “The Living Bubba,” a moving Hood song about an AIDS victim, was once closed with a vigorous solo by Isbell. Thursday night the song sort of faded into nothing, with neither Hood, Cooley, or third guitarist John Neff jumping in.
The Hold Steady stand in contrast to the Drive-By Truckers in their live act. Theirs is a tighter, though equally powerful set, with fewer surprises, but loads of energy. Crowd participation is a huge facet. The audience wide sing-alongs were out-numbered only by the audience wide clap-alongs. Finn is a demanding presence, moving about the stage is a series of quirky dances and hand flourishes, the guitar strapped around his body used only rarely. While Finn is engaging the crowd with his literary words and in your face delivery, keyboardist Nicolay is seemingly in his own word, slapping his face to the beat and jumping up and down for minutes at a time. On the other side of the stage is the almost-stoic Kubler, who kicks off almost every song with a guitar-strumming intro, and rips into a number of solos throughout.
The Hold Steady’s two shows were more similar, at least in song selection. They hinged around songs from their latest release Stay Positive, but pulled out songs from all four albums. “Chips Ahoy” won the crowd both nights, and during Friday’s encore “Almost Killed Me” almost brought the place down. Hood and Neff came out for the Hold Steady’s turn at finishing the night, and Hood led a cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burning For You.” The two bands will be together for the rest of the month, before The Hold Steady takes off for Europe.