By Mark Guarino
You can make yourself dizzy thinking of ways the Drive-By Truckers and the Hold Steady are similar, because each reason will ring untrue. It just may be that the only thing connecting these bands is their audience: you know, the beer-slugging collegiate types now suffering adulthood who appreciate the underdog passion of both bands, even if their most dire concern these days may be a questionable 401K or a dwindling credit line at H&M.
Such is the inevitability of bands making this kind of mass-market transfer, when forced to curry favor from fans unkind to nuance. So it goes with the nuance-free "Rock And Roll Means Well" tour, a deliberately amped-up barnburner of a bill that claims nothing more than to deliver its title sentiment in boldface – which in this case means wall-to-wall guitar solos, massive volume, and gang vocals shared by everyone on the stage, off, and possibly down the street. Shudder once and be one beat behind.
By the time the tour arrived in Chicago last Friday, the United States had a new president who lived, improbably, just 20 minutes south on Lake Shore Drive. "Chicago! Obama!" is how Truckers lead singer Patterson Hood introduced his band's opening set, before launching into 90 minutes of speed, galloping guitar riffs, and lead vocals shared with guitarist Mike Cooley, who exuded confidence and cool.
The Riviera date came midway in the tour's routing, which meant both bands arrived with their sets sharpened. The Truckers played with the raw power of the communal bands they so long admired, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Allmans. Their seventeen-song set was the more conceptual on the bill; Hood channeled the grim despondence of his narrators in heartbreak fashion, even sweating through the tragic soul ballad "Checkout Time In Vegas" as Otis Redding might have way back when.
With the Truckers, despondence is never frail for long. Closing in on the set's end, their songs drew longer and denser, as Cooley, Patterson, John Neff, and Shonna Tucker lined up their guitars and sang in unison. Reprises were attached to songs such as "The Boys From Alabama" while referencing some classic cliches; the band was kind of awed by making them perfectly ripe.
That team delivery was not the way of the Hold Steady; instead, this band of poker-faced droops passed all the momentum off to lead singer-talker Craig Finn. He has grown as the band's public face, but two years after their breakthrough album, his novelty is thinning. Does rock really need a Richard Simmons? Add a pair of short shorts, and his peacock strutting, aerobic fits and continued facial preening would be complete.
The jubilance of their best songs is no doubt endearing, but such a long set — almost two hours — countered with tedium. This is a band that could deliver a note-perfect half hour. But instead, after 25 songs, the drama of "Lord, I'm Discouraged" and other somber fare felt like bluster.