Freaking and Geeking With the Hold Steady

Surviving, if in need of a break.

When you're a band like the Hold Steady, Al's Tavern in Wallingford is an ideal setting for local postshow party action. The crowd is laid-back, the jukebox is great, and the selection of CDs being played on the house system by the bartender is even better. Not to mention that the aforementioned bartender is Cops frontman and Sunset Tavern booking agent Mike Jaworski, a friend and previous tour mate of the Brooklyn-based band. Over pints of Rainier and numerous shots, everyone was relaxing after their Sunday evening gig with Art Brut at the University of Washington's HUB Ballroom. I had been thinking about perpetuity all weekend, and couldn't resist shifting the conversation to great bands that broke up too early. With the Hold Steady's input, the list in my notebook grew long quickly: Drive Like Jehu, Death From Above, Exploding Hearts, McLusky, the Gits, Buddy Holly.

It was on my mind because I had just finished watching the criminally short-lived television series Freaks and Geeks. For those of you not already inducted into the show's cultish fan base, Freaks and Geeks was a serialized coming-of-age story about the misadventures of nerds and stoners at a fictional Michigan high school in the early '80s. It was ridiculously well-written and compulsively watchable, which made cueing up the 18th and final episode absolutely maddening. I actually kept pausing the DVD in some delusional attempt to prolong its presence. Perpetuity in art is always alluring, but eternally elusive in reality. It's a potent vehicle in pop music, for sure. Going on and on till the break of dawn is a theme so ubiquitous we practically don't notice it anymore, but it's a proven asset as a central theme (see Ozzy Osbourne's biggest hit to date, "I Don't Wanna Stop") or a gleeful flourish (James Murphy's urgent repetition of "never, never let them go" at the end of LCD Soundsystem's "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House"). This universal fondness for infinity is part of what makes it so crushing when great artistic output is aborted prematurely, whether through a tragic death, band infighting, or major-label mismanagement.

Luckily, as the drinks and stories spilled forth, I saw no danger of the Hold Steady entering that pantheon anytime soon. But they are definitely due for a little time off. They've had a blast sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen ("I really thought I was going to throw up, but then it was awesome," recalls bassist Galen Polivka) and touring with Art Brut for the last several weeks ("They're English, they love to drink, they're hilarious—what's not to like?"), but they're all obviously looking forward to going home once the tour winds down before Thanksgiving. They are getting ready to mix the live record they recorded during a Halloween show at the Metro in Chicago, and might pick up a New Year's Eve show back in New York, but Sunday was the last chance to see them in Seattle for a while.

Unfortunately (and through no fault of their own), the Hold Steady's show at the HUB Ballroom was a sterile, hollow affair, mired by the room's atrocious acoustics and straitlaced, alcohol-free ambience. Alcohol isn't necessary to make a show enjoyable—I've been to enough Fugazi shows to know that—but cold lighting and muddy sound are a bigger buzz-kill than any prohibition. It's admirable that the student body wants to kick down funds for killer touring bands, but my chances of attending a show at the HUB ever again are slim.

However, the scene at the Moore Theatre the next night couldn't have been more pleasing to the ears, eyes, and soul. The Swell Season, the band composed of Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech musician Markéta Irglová, entered most people's consciousness this year via the art-house hit musical Once, and judging by the rapt attention of an audience packed to the rafters, anyone who saw that movie wasn't about to miss the opportunity to see the live version. The sound was impeccable; you could hear all the details, from the softest quiver of the accompanying cellist's strings to Hansard's fingers sliding briskly over his mandolin. The nearly two-hour set included every song from the film, including the goofy, 30-second ditty Hansard's character uses to describe his status as a lovesick ex-pat working in a vacuum repair shop and crowd favorite "Falling Slowly," which was preceded by Hansard inviting an audience member up onstage to deliver a marriage proposal to his girlfriend. Hansard is a mirthful, modest, and enchanting storyteller, and his preambles before each song were as magical as the organic, unspoken musical dialogue between him and Irglová throughout the evening. When you can hear people openly weeping around you during a performance, you know you're experiencing something pretty special.

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