After bouncing from Grand Old Day to the Basilica Block Party to Cabooze Plaza to Rock the Garden in prior years in search of new ways of taking it outside, The Hold Steady finally found its way to the Twin Cities' most commonly used outdoor concert venue Saturday.
It's not as if the band was unaware of the Minnesota Zoo's amphitheater.
"Am I showing my age when I still call this 'the new zoo?' " Craig Finn asked the crowd at the opening of Saturday's sold-out performance.
The Edina-reared frontman of the Minnesota- and Wisconsin-rooted but Brooklyn, N.Y.-based quintet, Finn might have been hesitant to play the zoo that has been open since 1978 the same reason fans might have been hesitant to pay the inflated $45 ticket price: It's not very punk-rock. But Finn is still Minnesotan enough to know that the only local rock venue better than First Avenue is any decent outdoor venue on a pristine summer night like Saturday's. The zoo's well-tested stage was more than decent for a band that proved equally refined and professional.
Performing for 105 minutes and battling through what looked like about 105,000 mosquitoes, Finn and his band offered their trove of older tunes that fit the wild summery vibe. "Massive Nights" turned into a rowdy howl-along during the encore. "Southtown Girls" hit close to home — geographically speaking — with its shout-outs to mall culture south of Interstate 494. And "Constructive Summer" offered the perfect segue for Finn to talk about the Twins game he took in Saturday.
"It might still be a rebuilding year, but let's build something this summer," he said, presaging the song's lyrics.
While Finn had plenty of fodder for between-song banter, the rest of the band kept up a rapid pace and, yep, steadiness that gave the singer more room to roam during the songs. The Hold Steady lost some of its flair when keyboardist Franz Nicolay split in 2010, but its conventional two-guitar assault approach is more focused and impressive with the addition of ex-Lucero player Steve Selvidge.
These guys grew up on metal as much as punk, and there was a hint of Judas Priest-like reveille as Selvidge and co-founding guitarist Tad Kubler huddled together center stage to trade off leads in "Rock Problems." They gave "Southtown Girls" and some older tunes a heavier edge, but also added stormy textures to mellower and slower-stewing songs, such as the new epic "The Ambassador."
The band played only four tracks off its first album in four years, "Teeth Dreams," leaning instead on oldies for longtime Twin Cities fans, such as "Hornets! Hornets!" and "The Swish," the latter dedicated to attendees of their first Triple Rock show in 2004. Finn also alluded to what will be the quintet's biggest Minnesota gig yet — literally and symbolically — at Midway Stadium in September.
"Holy [expletive], we get to open for the Replacements," he beamed during the closing moments of "Killer Parties."
It's a good year to have twice the usual outdoor Hold Steady gigs.
See the set list at startribune.com/artcetera