Every time the Hold Steady plays Baltimore, lead singer Craig Finn tells the same story of how the band played its second-ever gig here at the Talking Head in 2003. On Thursday evening, in the decidedly more-attractive environs of the Canton Waterfront Park, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis quintet performed with the same rambunctious spirit as it did 11 years ago.
If the energy and intention are the same, the songwriting and musical skills have been sharpened considerably. Hold Steady's 2014 release, "Teeth Dreams," is one of the band's best and one of the year's best as well. Finn, the band's chief lyricist, has long chronicled that transitional era between school and marriage when the "boys and girls in America" kill time in rock clubs getting wasted on booze and pills and obsessed with pop culture, even as they fumble away their relationships. Now that the 43-year-old singer has gained some distance from that period, he can dissect it with ever-deeper cuts.
Finn's longtime songwriting partner, guitarist Ted Kubler, has also sharpened his craft, honing his once-blaring power chords into more-compact guitar figures. On Thursday, Finn sang the majority of songs without his guitar, opening up more space in the soundscape for his all-important words to come through. They still had to fight through the competition of a hard-charging rock band, but more of the words reached the end zone than in concerts past.
He even had the band quiet down for two rock ballads. The first was 2006's 'First Night,' the song that supplied not only the "Boys and Girls in America" title for that year's album but also the best one-line summation of lost innocence: "We can't get as high as we got on that first night." The second was 'The Ambassador' from the new album. Whatever romance Finn once felt for his early rock 'n' roll days has been scrubbed away in this song about a Minneapolis rock club that barely deserved the name and all its 20-something denizens who were "faking pain and making plans."
Finn wore his trademark Buddy Holly glasses, a blue go-to-work shirt, and a smile inhabiting the no-man's-land between a grin and a sneer. Freed from his guitar, he twitched about the stage, emphasizing the lyrics with hand gestures and ruthlessly pursuing hipster self-deceptions. There was a cruel edge to his vocal, but one had the sense that lyrics' primary target was the singer himself.
This was the last of this summer's WTMD's First Thursday concerts. The middle set was given to Hamilton Leithauser, who formerly led the D.C.-launched Walkmen. Showcasing the songs from his new solo debut, "Black Hours," the tall, slender blond took the role of a Sinatra-like saloon singer, his handsome tenor seasoned with a melancholy rasp and backed by a tightly focused pop-rock band. The lyrics didn't impress, but the melodies and chord changes were ambitious enough to stand out from most of the alternative pop that WTMD plays. Leithauser announced from the stage that his current guitarist and fellow ex-Walkman, Paul Maroon, had just moved to Baltimore.