Twenty miles outside of Philadelphia proper, Mojo 13 sits off Interstate 495 adjacent a tiny neighborhood . A few hours in any direction from the venue, The Hold Steady would be playing in front of more than a thousand people as part of their Heaven is Whenever tour. Nestled just outside of major markets, though, Mojo 13 presented the opportunity to catch the band in what should be described as their native element: a tiny bar.
The two-piece Naked Hearts started the show at 10PM, playing an indie-rock influenced blend of rock-and-roll. Frontwoman Amy Cooper lead the way, providing fleshy guitars over piped in bass lines and drummer Noah Wheeler’s enthralling percussion; the Brooklyn duo shared vocal duties with surprisingly strong performances. Naked Hearts played cuts from their brand new full-length Mass Hysteria, as well as tracks such as “Cat and Mouse” from 2009′s These Knees, successfully whetting the appetite of a crowd waiting patiently for The Hold Steady.
Minnesota-rooted The Hold Steady started things “the only way they know how” at 11:15, kicking into “Positive Jam” from their 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me. The band moved forward through their discography, touching next on Separation Sunday with “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”. Things jumped forward with “Hurricane J”, a rowdy romp from their newest album, and continued to spiral out of control with winding guitars on “Same Kooks”.
Frontman Craig Finn introduced “Girls Like Status” noting that he was always taught that “guys go for looks, but girls go for status”, and with those succinct words The Hold Steady launched into the Boys and Girls in America b-side. One of the many stories about the recurring, fictitious Holly came in “Bangin’ Camp”, the crowd roaring for the 2005 cut. “Our Whole Lives” found the band at their most cohesive moments thus far, locking together for the song’s distinct start-stop rhythms while Finn told tales of teenagers in Anytown, USA: “Cheerleaders dream of quarterbacks / Jock Jills go for jumping Jacks”.
“Barfruit Bars” was especially appropriate at Mojo 13: the venue is hardly more than a bar with a small bar-band performing area. Standing in a pile of tallboy cans littered throughout the crowd, the Almost Killed Me track was particularly poignant. “Heaven is Whenever” was beautiful, marked with a sly moment of Finn putting up finger quotes while delivering the final four words in the song’s pivotal lines: “Heaven is whenever / we can get together / lock your bedroom door and / listen to your records”.
Oh, Craig, you cunning linguist.
For the first time in the night, single “Chips Ahoy!” had the entire floor singing and dancing together in unison to Finn’s tales of betting on horses (and using the winnings as recreationally as possible). “Stuck Between Stations” followed, capitalizing on the energy from the previous Boys and Girls in America track to keep the crowd moving forward towards the barrier-free stage. The quirky, groove-laced “The Smidge” was excellent, and “Sequestered in Memphis” was a full-crowd singalong. Similarly, longtime The Hold Steady fans shouted unitedly with Finn during “The Swish” as he name-checked both the Journey guitarist and the prolific jazz pianist: “She said my name’s Neil Schon / but some people call me Nina Simone”.
The newer “Rock Problems” was a refreshing blast of rock-and-roll, and the band wrapped up their set with two more songs about the promiscuous Holly with rousing performancse of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “How a Resurrection Really Feels”. The harmonious vocals of “Southtown Girls” began The Hold Steady’s encore, with the sequel to “Chips Ahoy!” — “The Weekenders” — immediately following. Nearly two hours after opener “Positive Jam”, the compelling “Stay Positive” concluded the night with an exclamation point.
Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
Girls Like Status
Our Whole Lives
We Can Get Together
Charlemagne in Sweatpants
Stuck Between Stations
Sequestered in Memphis
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
How a Resurrection Really Feels
The Hold Steady’s twenty-three song setlist was fantastic, with stellar performances of some of the band’s best songs. Heaven is Whenever‘s “The Sweet Part of the City” and “A Slight Discomfort” were notably missing from a show supporting that album, but it’s hard to complain when a band unleashes nearly two hours of songs from across their entire discography. The Hold Steady’s intimate barroom performance will undoubtedly be remembered for a long time by fans lucky enough to have attended.