SAYREVILLE, NJ—The last strains of The Hold Steady’s encore closer, “Slapped Actress,” reverberated throughout the room, the band waved and walked off stage, and half of the audience began filtering out through the back doors as the lights came on. Then, not unusually, the sound guy put some music on to ease the crowd on its way; through the post-show chatter and commotion, Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” came drifting over the PA—and everyone just lost it. Middle-aged men and teenagers were singing in unison at the top of their lungs. People were embracing, eyes were getting watery, beers were hoisted into the air, and Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles wandered out into the crowd, clutching a Diet Coke and howling, “Hey, I know it’s late, we can make it if we run! Oh, Thunder Road…”
Of all the songs that could earn such a reaction, “Thunder Road” is somewhere near the top of the list, especially at the Jersey Shore, but there’s a greater significance to capping off this particular show with a rousing sing-along to one of The Boss’ greatest songs. Somehow, quite unexpectedly, Springsteen has found himself the patron saint of indie rock in the late oughties, with everyone from Arcade Fire to The Killers cribbing his vocal style and penchant for elucidating working-class drama. New Jersey, the armpit of America, owns indie rock’s current fetish, and goddammit we’re going to flaunt it, especially at a show featuring two of the trend’s most shining examples.
New Jersey’s own Titus Andronicus ripped through their set, churning out burst after burst of angry, hyper-literary anthems. The mix wasn’t perfect—a little too much sonic clutter, the reverb set just a shade too high—but these imperfections complimented the band’s sound as blueprinted on last year’s excellent The Airing Of Grievances. Songs galloped along at a breakneck pace, E Street Band-worthy solos stabbed through the cacophony and disappeared once more beneath the haze, and Patrick Stickles hollered like a pissed-off Springsteen during an existential crisis. The band occasionally let its foot of the gas for a momentary clean-strummed respite, but it wasn’t long before the music was whipped back up into another furious war cry. Titus dedicated one such song—“Fear And Loathing In Mahwah, NJ”—to the friends and family that came from Glen Rock to see the band’s triumphant home state show.
In a musical climate obsessed with gimmicky sub-genres, The Hold Steady plays straight-up rock ‘n’ roll better than any other band currently at it. The 23-song set spanned all four of the band’s consistently excellent albums, from early jams like “Most People Are DJs” and “The Swish” to highlights from last year’s Stay Positive. The band flawlessly maneuvered through every trick they’ve borrowed from the classic rock playbook. On stage, vocalist Craig Finn transforms from a balding 30-something dressed like an accountant into a manic showman, spitting out some of the best lyrics in indie rock and egging on the crowd while waving his arms and flinging about his guitar, which he very occasionally plays. Tad Kubler breaks into dazzling guitar solos that never come across as self-indulgent or masturbatory, all while managing to look half-asleep. Multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay rocks the greatest mustache in the music business and assaults his piano like a modern-day Jerry Lee Lewis. The Hold Steady knows they’ve nicked some of the Boss’ style (see the hilarious nod to “Born To Run” in “Charlemagne In Sweatpants,” “Tramps like us/And we like tramps”), but of all the bands aping Springsteen’s shtick, The Hold Steady sound like the most natural torchbearers.