Barry's confessional and imagistic lines caused the crowd to sway as the songwriter sang of finding God on a train track in "Church of the Level Track." The floor shined slick with errant sloshes of water and beer. Members of the crowd tied jackets and sweaters around their waists and settled into Barry's confessional jangle.
I felt a certain weight in the air as Barry claimed, "I'm not afraid to die, I'm afraid not to live" in the space between songs. "South Hill" told of a soldier who ended up paralyzed, and reminded the crowd to live happily each day with what they have, because while the grass can seem greener on the other side, it can also be completely charred, burnt beyond the recognition of even a cinder. The song featured a twisted chorus that horrified with the confusion and fear of the soldiering life, but shined with juxtaposition, buoyed by ebullience of the simply-strummed guitar work.
Other highlights included "Driver Pull" and "Avoiding Catatonic Surrender." During the latter, Barry apologized for the crassness of his verses before he dove into each one, smiling and strumming his guitar, delaying the satisfying deluge of moody misogyny, heartbreak and curses.
Craig Finn and the rest of the Hold Steady bounded on stage amidst a swell of music -- a Lou Reed song in fact -- over the house speakers and crashed into "Hornets! Hornets!" from 2005's "Separation Sunday." Finn stood proud and enigmatic with his chest puffed, as guitarists Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge churned out the song's thick, fuzzed and breakneck chords.
"Hurricane J" from 2010's "Heaven Is Whenever" preceded "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" from the Hold Steady's upcoming record, "Teeth Dreams." Finn addressed a request, offering up a raucous version of "You Can Make Him Like You." Throughout the evening, the crowd's hands were either soaring in the air, wrapped around a beer, a lover (or both), or clapping with thunderous fury.
No longer providing support guitar duties, Finn was able to focus solely on his brilliant lyrics, delivery and the little bits of pomp and swagger webbed between. Finn gesticulated with grandeur, hammering home the plot turns, breaks and lyrical twists of his songs with impish delight. The audience responded to every hook, breath and turn, shouting the lyrics back at Finn; the singer gave the mojo right back to the front row with a wry grin and a balled fist.
The Hold Steady fired through "Sequestered in Memphis," "Cattle and the Creeping Things," "Spinners" (new song), "Hot Soft Light," "Ask Her For Adderall," "Almost Everything" (new song), "Weekenders," "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," and "Oaks" (new song). The dueling guitars of Kubler and Selvidge rounded out the set with quick-fire thrash sessions before the band quit the stage.
The Hold Steady returned for a sweaty, passion-filled encore. "The Sweet Part of the City" spoke empathically to the crowd, who at that very moment inhabited the sweetest part of St. Louis City.
The lights came up and I slinked back to my car. In the distance, I heard a female-helmed metal band blasting their practice session from the top floor of the house next door to Off Broadway. Their muffled cacophony melded with the receding sounds of chatter emanating from the club's front porch.
I moved further into the night, and soon, I was left with just the ringing in my ears, the faint hum of the I-55 in the distance and my thoughts. I approached my car, snubbed my smoke, climbed inside and paused, my key hovering near the ignition. I realized I wasn't cold, or alone, or wanting, no, I was warm, alive and full, reveling in the ethos Barry and Finn and Co. had placed before me.
I realized one must appreciate, each night, each moment. I had an experience with these acts, this crowd, this bar staff, as did everyone else in attendance for the Hold Steady's rare St. Louis club show. It was an experience that we're all most-certainly better for, no matter individual circumstances, problems, concerns or worries. Just like the evening's acts, such things should never go unappreciated but held onto covetously and savored, like Finn's final breaths into the microphone before he turned and disappeared off stage for the final time.