Summerfest: The Hold Steady

Creatively, The Hold Steady hit its high water mark with 2006’s epic Boys and Girls In America, but the band isn’t known as a hit machine; it’s known as an in-your-face live rock act, and they didn’t disappoint on Thursday night at Milwaukee’s Summerfest music festival.

The Hold Steady’s signature sound pits Craig Finn’s unique sing-speak vocals against Tad Kubler’s sharp classic rock riffs, with Franz Nicolay’s keys providing support. Only Nicolay left the band in January leading to a sparser production on this year’s Heaven Is Whenever. The band played the two best tracks from the album — “Hurricane J” and “The Sweet Part of the City” — and while they’re quality songs, they struggle to hold their own against Boys and Girls classics like “Stuck Between Stations,” “Chips Ahoy,” “Massive Nights” and “Southtown Girls,” which all made an appearance on Thursday night. They also played the underrated “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” which was the track that put the band on my radar.

In total, The Hold Steady played for more than 90 minutes to a raucous and appreciative crowd. It’s obvious that this Brooklyn-based band has Midwestern roots, and their music speaks to their fans in Milwaukee. One of the great things about Summerfest is that a show like this is free with a $15 admission at the gate. (Admission is even cheaper if one takes advantage of the fest’s many promotions or buys his tickets in advance.)

Here’s a video from Letterman that captures what it’s like to see these guys live. (Finn’s voice usually sounds a little cleaner.)


Summerfest: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers w/ZZ Top

Virtually every summer, my wife and I make the trek from our home in California to Wisconsin for Milwaukee’s Summerfest. I grew up in a nearby suburb and the 11-day Summerfest is an institution. With 11 stages, 700 bands and around a million visitors, it’s one of the largest, if not the largest music fest in the world.

Kicking off our 2010 Summerfest was Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with special guest ZZ Top. Tom Petty has always been a ‘safe bet’ in terms of an entertaining concert experience. His set list is consistently loaded with familiar hits and with his 35 years and 15 albums, he has a large oeuvre to draw from. Last night, he started off strong with “Listen to Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Free Fallin'” before covering Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” The band played two more big hits — “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Breakdown” — before moving through four tracks from their new album, Mojo. From a pure concertgoer standpoint, this setup gave attendees an opportunity to head to the concession stand without missing any major songs. Some artists will try to keep fans in their seats by sprinkling in new music with old hits, and it can make it difficult to know when to hit the proverbial head.

After the Mojo interlude, the band closed the main set with an acoustic version of “Learning to Fly,” a blistering rendition of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and the tried but true “Refugee.” As an encore, they played “Running Down a Dream,” “Mystic Eyes” (Them cover) and “American Girl.”

ZZ Top opened, and while they’re getting on in years, they still sound great. The underrated “Waitin’ for the Bus / Jesus Just Left Chicago” medley was a personal highlight, but all of their ’80s singles (“Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” etc.) sound better in person without all the crappy production so prevalent in that era. They closed with “La Grange” and “Tush,” so it turned out to be a very satisfying greatest hits setlist.

Photo from fOTOGLIF