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Cheap Girls got the crowd warmed up for the Hold Steady. The trio from Lansing, Michigan, fueled by Ian Graham’s crooning vocals, was a throwback to ’90s alternative rock, most notably the Smoking Popes — simple bass, drums, guitar, and vocals over a comforting blanket of power chords. Leaning more toward the rock than the punk end of the musical spectrum, I found myself pondering how few bands sound like this anymore. Apparently this sound isn’t as hip as it was in the ‘90s, just don’t tell all the fans singing along to “Her and Cigarettes” about that.

The Hold Steady’s set started with a piano-less version of the piano-centric ballad “First Night,” from 2006’s Boys and Girls in America. The band’s new ace guitarist, Steve Selvidge, took the lead. He played all the keyboard parts on guitar and pulled it off. Sort of...

Wait, that's not a piano!

The remainder of the show followed a similar pattern. All of the songs from past albums that weren’t anchored by departed member Franz Nicolay’s keyboard contributions sounded great; the songs missing Nicolay’s keyboards sounded odd, empty. “Chips Ahoy” sounded strange in this regard, but the most jarring was the band’s anthem, and final song of the night, “Stuck Between Stations.” “Stations” stopped dead in the spot about two-thirds of the way through that once featured Nicolay’s piano solo. I didn’t realize how integral this solo break was to the song until it wasn’t there. Even worse, they didn’t edit it out; they just left dead air, where the band took the time to thank the crowd, and then they started the song up again, giving the audience just enough of a break to wonder why in the world they would choose to pull the plug on the music at a moment when the tune is just starting its victory lap.

The show wasn’t akin to seeing a Billy Joel or Ben Folds concert minus piano, but the feeling I took away was that keyboards might be more integral to the sound of the Hold Steady than the band realizes.

  • Concert: The Hold Steady/Cheap Girls
  • Venue: Belly Up
  • Date: July 31
  • Seats: Floor
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