The Hold Steady, Bad Bad Hats, Mixed Blood Majority, Static Panic, Rachel Kurtz, DJ Shannon Blowtorch
Festival Field (Surly Brewing Company)
October 13, 2018
SurlyFest is an annual tradition hailed by the brewery as a metaphor for their overall approach to beer. Much like Dogfish Head’s “Off-centered ales for off-centered people” core concept, Surly uses this Oktoberfest-inspired event to do their own thing. Yes, Surly releases an annual Oktoberfest-ish beer each year and throws this fest in that spirit, but the beer itself is well outside the rauch or Marzen flavors most associate with Oktoberfest. Surly’s version (which changes from year to year), embraces their hop-forward approach instead of highlighting that caramel malt base. Similarly, SurlyFest the even doesn’t emphasize lederhosen and accordion, but modern American indie rock.
This year’s lineup is a testament to that: diverse in style, generally from the vaguely-defined “indie scene” where bands are independent but have enough name recognition to highlight a festival. The lineup is usually local in focus, including this year, though technically The Hold Steady are from New York.
After missing the opening two acts due to schedule conflicts, I arrived just in time for Mixed Blood Majority, a hip-hop trio from the Twin Cities featuring rappers Crescent Moon (Kill the Vultures) and Joe Horton (No Bird Sing) and Lazerbeak (Doomtree) on beats. The crowd was still trickling in when their set began at 5pm but those up front where there for the music and not the beer, which is that fine line that sets an event like this apart from your average block party or parking lot event. Festival Field is built for bands, not just crowds. Mixed Blood Majority braved the temperate conditions, spitting lines as you could see their breath, and gradually shedding layers, ditching the winter coats but keeping stocking hats on. That’s kind of a theme for the night, besides the beer and music (of course). While I’m familiar with the artists and knew their first record, it was my first time seeing them in action. The chemistry between Crescent Moon and Horton was in full force, complementing each other’s flow and carefully sharing the spotlight as Lazerbeak worked his magic behind them. The two tradeoff for the most part, handing off verses and interacting physically at those points, otherwise taking up their own corners of the stage when it was time to shine individually.
Bad Bad Hats were a fitting segue. In full winter coats (to start) the dreamy pop band was less energetic on stage, befitting both of their style and that it was a chilly dusk. The set highlights their ability to straddle different styles: serious and fun, introspective yet universal, bouncy but with an inward-looking weariness. Autumnal music, for sure.
And then The Hold Steady took the stage. I haven’t seen them perform in any other city (not even St. Paul), but what always strikes me is that enormous grin on Craig Finn’s face whenever he takes the stage. It’s a homecoming show for the (half) Twin Cities-native band, and their enthusiasm is undeniable. The crowd also eats it up. Minnesotans take pride when one of our own strikes big. When a band like this – who namedrop everything from nationally-known landmarks to suburban strip malls in their material – achieve mainstream success, it’s embraced for life. They aren’t at a Purple Rain or Fargo level, but it’s a big deal.
Onto the actual show, though, which culled from their whole discography, opening with “Stuck Between Stations” and continuing for over an hour and a half. The ‘70s rock influence that overshadowed more recent albums was more subdued live. It’s ever-present in the light show and stage presence, but the solos and pomp added to the energy rather than taking something away. It’s a palpable energy that transcends from Finn’s grin to the shifting spotlight on stage that often turns to keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Nicolay adds the flair, while everyman Finn sings his stories and flails his arms like at a poetry jam. It’s a spectacle, in the good way. While the homage is certainly to an era of grandiose I’m generally not fond of, The Hold Steady keep a distinct balance. After all, the lyrics are accessible and relatable and Finn’s cropped hair, sportcoat, and vocal style are all more punk rocker than rock star.
So what’s the takeaway? In many ways it was a “greatest hits” show, and I’ve had the band in my head for the past week, even though I don’t know when I last listened to a full album. That’s the easiest way to say it was a rager. The band is always billed as a homecoming act in the Twin Cities, but it came across as a regular concert from a band that’s mastered their craft.
Photos by Loren Green