Riot Fest - Denver:  Day Two (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Riot Fest

Denver: Day Two (2016)

live show

On Saturday, my main goal was to catch my two favorite (active) bands in the world: Against Me! and The Hold Steady!

Okay, so I know it’s probably not a huge surprise that the trans girl is an Against Me! fan. Laura Jane Grace is a big part of why I started down this journey I’m on, so I owe a lot to her. On top of that, I was feeling uneasy about my first Riot Fest presenting as female, as well as the hard memories that came with Riot Fest this year because of the ex-girlfriend that I took to this festival last year. But when you need a trans self-esteem pick-me-up and therapy for a broken heart, Against Me! is pretty much the perfect band to watch. Laura Jane Grace positively wrecked that stage with a fierce and powerful energy like a runaway train. The setlist rarely ventured into anything older than New Wave, and mostly focused on Transgender Dysphoria Blues and the three singles released early from the new album, Shape Shift with Me. All three new songs went over like gangbusters, especially “333,” which the band seemed to have a great deal of fun singing. Grace can sometimes get a bit too serious in her performance if she’s in a bad mood, but on this day you could see that she exuded nothing but joy, and that joy was reflected in the audience. My only complaint is that, with seven albums of material and only 45 minutes to play, a lot of great material got left off the setlist including “Thrash Unreal” and “White Crosses,” but that’s more of a testament to Grace’s prolific songwriting abilities than anything else.

The Hold Steady were there promising to perform their album Boys and Girls in America in its entirety for the album’s 10th anniversary. Another album that was on my top five all time favorite albums list, I was especially excited for this set, even though it would mark approximately the seventh time I’d seen The Hold Steady live.  Another highlight of their performance was the much talked about reunion of the band with keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who left the band after their fourth album, Stay Positive. While I still love the band’s post-Nicolay material, there did seem to be some sort of loss of confidence in The Hold Steady after Nicolay left, and a definite drop in the frequency with which they toured and put out materials. They even announced that Riot Fest was their first live show in 18 months, suggesting the band has been a little less active of late. But with this first performance in a while, one thing became clear: The Hold Steady was back!

When Nicolay left the band, they chose not to replace him with another keyboardist, but rather replaced him by adding another guitarist, Steve Selvidge, instead. They said in interviews that this “opened up their sound,” but I always disagreed with that assertion. I think that, actually, having a dynamic keyboardist like Franz Nicolay gave them a bigger, better sound. But Nicolay’s return was probably the best thing that could have happened to them, because in bringing back Franz Nicolay, the band didn’t eject or temporarily retire Nicolay’s replacement, Steve Selvidge. Craig Finn remarked on how good it felt to be a six piece, and I have to agree with him. Three guitarists and a talented keyboardist gave the band a rocking, powerful, multi-faceted sound. Besides, Craig Finn doesn’t seem to like to play guitar that much anyway. He seems to prefer singing with an untouched guitar hanging loosely around his neck and then picking up his guitar to chime in on the chorus.  With two other guitarists, he had plenty of opportunities to do this. And when the three guitars rang out together, it added a layer to the already brilliant album they played.

As far as I know, there’s been no announcement as to whether Nicolay’s return is permanent or just for this special tour, and even when they finished playing songs from Boys and Girls in America, I noticed there were no attempts to work Nicolay into any of the material from after his departure. Instead, the band stuck to songs written before Nicolay left the band. But if the band does decide to continue on with both Nicolay and Selvidge, I think they’ll find themselves looking at a new era of prolific output and a new height of creativity. The Hold Steady sounds like they were always born to be a six piece band.

Yet, no band I could see was going to be as important as seeing the Misfits on Sunday night. I have some real history to report on. So stay tuned: same punk time, same punk channel!