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The Hold Steady and more play Surlyfest 2018

Surlyfest Beer
Photo: Surly Brewing (Via Instagram)

Minnesotans have a lot to be proud of. Beautiful lakes. Sparkling summers. Hockey. As far as large American metropolis’ go, we’re often under-rated. The reasons for this are plentiful and could be expounded on for hours, but often the conversation boils down to a few things: the people, the culture, and the history. Minnesotans are, by-and-large, kind, open-minded, and caring people. Maybe I’m biased having spent the last twenty-two years here, but the older I get, the more often I find myself appreciating these qualities.

Related to the people are the culture and the history of the area. Cultures and histories might be a better way to put it, as the twin cities are home to a bevy of groups, cultures, and subcultures. Culture is a nebulous and hard to define concept, but there are certain staples of the area’s culture that are hard to deny. Two of these, beer and music, combined to make for a unique celebration of fall at Surlyfest on Saturday night.

Surlyfest is the annual Oktoberfest celebration held by the beloved and renowned Surly Brewing. Surly, opened in 2005, has established itself as a major player in the cities and beyond. The festival, in its eleventh year, brought together food, beer, and great atmosphere, which was buoyed by several fine musical acts, including a memorable headlining set by rock veterans The Hold Steady.

I got to the brewery at around 3:30 PM, just as the first artist wrapped up. The crowd was thin at this point, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as it gave me space and time to explore the vast campus, which included two (!) adult-friendly bouncy slides, equipment to play cornhole, a plethora of food trucks, and of course the massive beer hall itself.

DJ Shannon Blowtorch spun records between sets and provided a great soundtrack for walking around, drinking, socializing, and of course, dancing. The mix included everything from Sharon Jones to Prince to SZA. One of the best things a DJ can do is pull disparate music into creative and cohesive sets and that’s exactly what she did.

The first band I got to see was Static Panic. A local trio, the band played funk, rock and pop music heavily inspired by the 80’s. The 80’s of course, were defined by a number of sounds, but Static Panic tapped into many of them, most prevalently hard-edged funk-rock, and synth-pop. Both a Keytar and Talk-box made appearances, and at one point they even introduced a song as being inspired directly by Tears for Fears.

An act like this faces a very specific challenge: how to pay homage and incorporate sounds from a bygone era without sounding too derivative or old school to a fault. Static Panic walked this line gracefully, showing reverence while maintaining their own unique sound. I was pleasantly surprised by their set, and I look forward to seeing them again in the future.

Next up was hip-hop group Mixed Blood Majority. A local supergroup of sorts comprised of veteran rappers Joe Horton (from No Bird Sing), and Crescent Moon (Kill the Vultures) along with producer Lazerbeak of Doomtree brought high energy heavy hip-hop with an electronic edge to the Surly stage. I had high expectations for the set having seen them all in other groups before, and, for the most part, the group lived up to them.

On a personal level, it was refreshing to see a high-level local hip-hop set, considering I haven’t seen many hip-hop shows in the last few years. The set reminded me how inspiring it can be to see the balance of thoughtfulness and bangers that hip-hop (especially twin cities hip-hop) is great at delivering.

Up to this point at the festival, I’d mostly focused on the music, which was strong all afternoon and. There is, of course, a logic to this; I’m covering the festival for a music blog after all. A festival at Surly, however, is as much about the beer and the experience as it is the music. With that in mind, I indulged in some of Surly’s finest brews. The best of these was the Surly Porter, A dark beer that went down easy and felt optimal on the overcast late afternoon. Other highlights included the Surlyfest beer (brewed exclusively for the occasion), and the Surly Wet. I’m not the biggest beer fan, but I have consistently enjoyed Surly’s offerings in the past, and these lived up to those lofty standards.

The atmosphere and experience were also top-shelf. The layout of the festival was excellent, allowing individuals to have whatever type of experience they desired. The Stage and viewing area loomed large, but the event was spread out enough for festival goers to engage with the music to whatever extent they desired. If you didn’t like a band that was playing, you could stand back and hang out relatively unperturbed, and if you wanted to stand up close and rock out for a few hours that was an option as well. If cornhole is your thing, you could play cornhole to your heart’s delight.

I got one of the up-close spots for the penultimate act, another local trio, Bad Bad Hats. An up-and-coming indie pop/rock band with great melodies, the young band played a very catchy, and engaging set, with each player playing ably without being too flashy, ceding the spotlight where it belonged-to the high-quality melodies and writing of the songs themselves.

Though they’re often classified as an indie rock band, Bad Bad Hats separate themselves from the pack in that crowded world with their well-crafted songs and pop instincts. Plenty of bands try to write pop songs, but few succeed in making it seem as effortless as they do. Many of their songs have a sing-along quality to them and burn themselves into your brain after only a listen or two.

That quality is part of what makes them great and is undoubtedly part of the reason their fan base has expanded exponentially locally and nationally over the last few years. Great songwriting is hard to come by, and they have it in abundance. Their latest album, Lightning Round, came out in August and is as worthy of a listen as anything I’ve heard this year, locally or otherwise. Their set accomplished much, setting the table for what was yet to come.

After one final excellent half-an-hour set by DJ Shannon Blowtorch, the stage was set for the night’s headliners, the (kind of) local and fully legendary rockers The Hold Steady. However, as the clock struck 8, the expected set start time, a familiar yet unexpected face emerged from backstage to address the crowd. The face belonged to Steve Fletcher, a Minneapolis Councilman, who proceeded to announce that the day would be “The Hold Steady Day” in the city. The crowd erupted, and the energy would only rise from there.

Minnesota has a rich and varied rock history spanning back to (and beyond) the genre’s inception. This includes bands that set the world on fire, unheralded yet great local and touring acts, and even a few one hit wonders. From the Trashmen to Prince to The Jayhawks, we’ve seen it all. Yet over the past two decades, arguably the most mythologized twin cities rock band is a band some purists might not even consider a twin cities band. That band, of course, is The Hold Steady.

Formed in Brooklyn in the early aughts out of the ashes of popular twin cities band LFTR PLLR, The Hold Steady are led by Minnesotan Craig Finn and Honorary Minnesotan Tad Kubler. Their rise, though it didn’t take them to the top of the pop world, is a storied one, includes no fewer than three classic albums, and countless tours, many of which have come through Minnesota at some point or another.

Their sound draws from the classic rock, punk, hip-hop, and singer-songwriter worlds. It’s indebted to Bruce Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, and the Replacements to name a few, mixing hard-rock riffs, and a uniquely delivered brand of poetry with punk rock spirit and urgency. They also mix in plenty of references to Finn’s home state of Minnesota, from various cities to very specific streets and bars.

Despite their local ties and the abundance of references to the state in their songs, the band hadn’t played in Minnesota since 2014 (That was an opening slot for the historic Replacements reunion at the since-demolished Midway Stadium). But, as often happens, the stars aligned, and now here we were at an official “Hold Steady Day” at Surlyfest, ready for the unique rock and roll vision the band had to offer.

The group opened with “Stuck Between Stations,” which is one of their best-known songs, and the opening track on 2006’s excellent Boys and Girls in America. The song has many hallmarks of a great Hold Steady song: references to the twin cities, excellent Interplay between the band and keyboard player Franz Nicolay, and powerful, classic rock inspired guitar licks that never crossed the line of being overpowering or corny. It was received rapturously by the audience, many of whom knew every word.

More of the same would follow, with cuts taken from every part of their six-album catalog (and one single, “Entitlement Crew,” from outside it). They would even play two more leadoff tracks on the night (“Constructive Summer,” from 2008’s Stay Positive, and “Hornets! Hornets!” from 2005’s Separation Sunday.). The band rarely took a breather, and never relented, keeping the energy high the whole time. This formula, owing to as much to punk as classic or “indie” rock, was a resounding success, keeping the now-large audience engaged for the entirety of the two-hour set.

Just as engaged as the audience were the band members themselves. Finn, the group’s primary singer/songwriter, is as animated as I’ve seen any front man be (Though Clutch’s Neil Fallon comes close). He’s not a great dancer in the way that Bruno Mars is a great dancer, with lots of polished, choreographed moves, but rather he moves in ways that accentuate the words he’s speaking and the stories he’s telling. The audience feeds off of him, and he feeds off of the audience, creating a rock and roll energy feedback loop of sorts. The rest of the group was engaged as well, which fit the energetic music to a tee.

Sometimes it can be hard to explain why certain bands “make it,” and certain bands don’t. We all have stories about bands who seemingly had what it takes yet could never break through and reach whatever threshold of success we thought they would reach. The opposite happens as well, as bands we don’t care for or are indifferent towards reach unexpected heights for reasons we can’t seem to explain.

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In watching The Hold Steady, however, I had no such problem. While success of any sort (especially in the music industry) is never as simple as a formula and can rarely be chalked up to any group of factors, it’s abundantly clear, at least in part, why this band has achieved as much as they have. Put simply, they have a unique and authentic energy and aura about them that’s nearly unrivaled, at least among bands that I’ve had the privilege of seeing and listening to. That energy is multidimensional, and manifests itself on their albums, but moves into another gear in their live shows.

The idea of “rock and roll,” as being a sort of deep spiritual or otherworldly force is not a new and radical proposition, nor one that I necessarily subscribe to. With that said, when you see and listen to a band with the sort of genuine energy The Hold Steady have, the idea that somebody would see a single band 100 times seems a little less out there. (Note: At this show, Finn pointed out a fan attending their 100th show).

All armchair rock and roll philosophy aside, watching this band play their first show in the cities in such a long time was a treat that I won’t soon forget. They played most of the “hits,” or at least songs that I wanted to hear (Including four from Separation Sunday, my personal favorite), and left an impression on the audience that’s bound to last. It was well worth the wait, a rewarding ending to a great day.

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