Drunken rants and moustache chants

What ever happened to fun, rowdy bands? It seems like current music is brimming with dismal, melodramatic acts and singers carrying themselves like the next messiah. What if I just want to go to a show and rock out without everyone around me standing with arms crossed, stolid and motionless? This week, I found the answer at two concerts in the South Side: The Hold Steady and Man Man.

Imagine listening to a Bruce Springsteen album, except instead of the Boss singing his wistful, eloquent lyrics, they are sung by a surly, ranting drunk.

With that sound, The Hold Steady has steadily gained popularity since its first album, 2004’s Almost Killed Me. Singer/guitarist Craig Finn carries each song with anthemic stories about relationships, partying, drugs, and drinking. All the while, Finn is seemingly ignorant of the driving music behind him, as his voice drifts in and out of tempo and melody. But this sloppy style comes as a breath of fresh air among the smoke of other acts’ meticulous composition and harmonies.

The Hold Steady’s epic ode to carefree adolescence, Boys and Girls in America, has earned the band recent acclaim in the media: Esquire named Craig Finn the best songwriter of 2007, and Boys and Girls appeared on both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork Media’s top ten albums of 2006 list. The band has been touring in the US and UK ever since the album’s release last October.

From listening to their albums, you would expect a Hold Steady show to be a raucous, beer-sloshed event. And that’s exactly what the band brought to the Rex Monday night.

The five band members were rocking on full steam, fueled by alcohol. The keyboardist provided classic rock melodies and backing vocals, donning a paperboy’s cap and a waxed mustache and often executing 360° spins between playing times. Craig Finn mostly used his guitar as an ornament rather than a musical instrument, clapping goofily, waving to the crowd, and gesticulating as he ranted lyrics.

In another context, these guys would be laughed off the stage, but as The Hold Steady, they become the coolest dudes you’ve ever seen. It’s like seeing your inebriated father perform Rolling Stones karaoke, trying to strut like Mick Jagger — and rather than hiding your face, you want to jump on stage and join him.

The venue was filled with 20- and 30-somethings who were ready and willing to drop their inhibitions, singing and dancing along with the band. It could have been the beer in the hands of nearly every other person, but even if you were sober, Finn had more than enough drunken joy to spread to the crowd. The vibe from Finn’s lyrics, such as “We had some massive nights/Every song was right” certainly fit the atmosphere in the crowd, where listeners chanted eagerly while clapping/fist pumping to the beat.

The set escalated at the end of the encore as the band jammed to “Killer Parties” and reached into the crowd to pull people onto the stage, handing off guitars for audience members to play. By the end of the song, the stage was filled with over 20 smiling people, high-fiving the band members as Finn pointed around the venue and slurred out the unifying line “...and we’re all/The Hold Steady.”

The next night, just across the street, Man Man took the stage at Diesel Club Lounge to lead another fun concert of rowdiness and rock. Dressed in white tennis outfits and wearing face paint, the members of Man Man grunted, shrieked, and growled through their set.

Drummer Pow Pow and singer/keyboardist Honus Honus sat in the front of the stage facing each other while the three other members stood in the back providing backup vocals and rhythms with a barrage of instruments including keyboards, xylophone, marimba, guitars, trumpet, saxophone, and melodicas.

As opposed to The Hold Steady’s corny-but-cool stage presence, Man Man’s act gave new meaning to the phrase “clever antics”: During “Push the Eagle’s Stomach,” the band chanted “mustache!” over and over while Pow Pow and Honus Honus hopped synchronously straight into the air. At the beginning of “Black Mission Goggles,” three of the members whipped out plastic noise horns (think New Year’s Eve), which they blew to the beat. At one point, it even seemed like the band was having a screaming contest, as each member took turns yelping into his mic in his own absurd style.

But the set was not simply a conglomeration of ridiculousness. Amongst the mayhem of the night, the members of Man Man came together as a cohesive unit, delivering tight, exciting music. Honus Honus provided no witty banter between playing; he simply flowed gracefully into the next song in order to keep the energy high.

On recordings, Man Man is just as fun and absurd as in concert. Its songs often combine light-hearted romping with dark, dismal lyrics to produce a multidimensional mood. The sound of its latest album, Six Demon Bag, has been compared to that of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa for its vocal style and originality. The album received high rankings from most music critics. Pitchfork Media named it the 20th best album of 2006.

During Tuesday night’s show, Diesel was sparsely filled with college- and high school-age fans who were somewhat thrown off by the nightclub atmosphere. The stage was about five feet high, separating the band from the audience below, which left fans struggling to connect with the energy. Also, the PA speakers were placed on the ground, causing the sound to be quite muddy and drowning out a lot of the auxiliary instruments and vocals.

Despite the unfavorable situation, both the band and the fans kept the night exciting. The audience was loose and in high spirits, moving and swaying to the music. Still, with Man Man’s music being as crazy and unpredictable as it is, some people had trouble finding their groove in the rhythm. Much of the audience was simply standing and watching by the end of the set, nevertheless wearing wide smiles and enjoying the show.