Beards, Blazers & Glasses: The Hold Steady

I wouldn’t describe myself as a “happy” person. Not to say that I’m some sort of lugubrious, sepulchral soul brooding over melancholy poems by lamp light,* but rather, I find “happy” one of those banal adjectives that I tend to associate with watchers of CBS sitcoms, I’m From Barcelona fans and protagonists of the last decent Adam Sandler vehicle (no Punch Drunk Love). Yet strangely enough, the reason why I love going to see the Hold Steady in concert is because they make me really fucking happy. Of course, there are a lot of great bands that I enjoy live, but few elicit such joy as Craig Finn & Co.—it’s pretty embarrassing actually.

Thing is, whenever I see The Hold Steady, I get this broad, bovine grin on my face, like a sorority girl at a James Blunt concert, or a narcoleptic at a Coldplay show—and I’m not the only one either. I’ve stated in the past that the Hold Steady are closer to a cult than a rock band and that belief has only become more entrenched each time I see them. They don’t get fans, they get fan boys and listening to the albums, it’s impossible to grasp exactly how they could do such a thing. Because, let’s be honest, I’ll ride for all four of the band’s records but I’m not about to throw on “Boys and Girls in America,” give someone a pair of headphones and tell them that “The Hold Steady will change their life.” **

But something undeniably special occurs at a Hold Steady show. The audience gets swept into a sort of weird rapture, almost impossible to find in the mumbling, introverted world of indie rock. Throughout the band’s hour and a half Sunday night set at the Orpheum in Boston, my attention kept on getting momentarily diverted by three different types, all of whom continually kept on “losing their shit” (for lack of a better phrase). The first, a lanky hipster in a sport coat and asymmetric hair-cut, whose arms never slacked, a frenetic, flailing mixture of pointing, roof-raising and pure reverie. Every few songs, he’d get so swamped in the music that he’d storm to the front row, only to be hurled back to his seat by security. Normally, he was the type of guy I’d mock mercilessly and Google for a random photo to illustrate his absurdity.

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Craig Finn In the Midst of Performing a Cover of "YMCA"

Instead, the Kramer-esque, “hipster doofus” seemed imbued with a certain fundamental righteousness. As did the couple in the front row, rocking and holy-rolling to each song, arms intertwined—save for when he paused to rifle off an imaginary air guitar lick or she whipped out her camera to preserve the moment. To say nothing of the two teenaged geeks in the row in front of me, who like everyone else in the room seemed to know every word to every song. The pair amounted to a miniature Wayne and Garth, elbows akimbo, nearly knocking me out with their spastic churning and head whipping. There was a certain sweetness and sincerity to the affair, one lacking in the often-arch, tight-lipped performances that fall under the loose umbrella constituting “indie.”

Of course, I agreed. My grin, wide and nacreous, all of us distinctly different, unified in our shared belief that unfettered joy was the only appropriate reaction to Craig Finn’s giddy stage presence, beads of sweat pouring down his face, beatific smile and wild, frantic rapper arm gesticulations. Or Tad Kubler, the unassuming lead guitarist whose tattoos and guitar chops seem to multiply exponentially every time I see the band. While Franz Nicolay, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire (harpsichord, keyboards, harmonica, accordian), chugged red wine straight from the bottle and once again, marked himself as the band’s secret weapon and the prime reason for their ability to diversify their sound beyond the Replacements and Springsteen worship of their first two albums. Perhaps predictably, the band leaned heavily on their most recent album “Stay Positive” (reviewed by me, here), but made sure to play the fan favorites from its predecessors (“Chips Ahoy,” “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” and a particularly great, “Positive Jam.”)

Indeed, it’s the title of the latter song that indicates what makes the Hold Steady one of my favorite bands and ensures that I’ll see them every time they come through town (ensuring that you--dear reader--will be bludgeoned with another review in my on-going quest to cadge free tickets***). Blessed with the rare talent to mix sincerity and smarts, heart without schmaltz, The Hold Steady remain on my short-list of the finest bands to emerge during this decade. By the time, they unfurled a “Rock + Roll Means Well,” banner during their encore (played with Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers), the band had validated every bit of the vague meaning contained within the statement. I was happy and I don’t think anyone in the room felt any differently.

*I mean, really, I do the wide majority of my reading during the day.

** Is it safe to say, with the decade winding down, that the “Shins will change your life” scene in “GardenState” is the worst sequence in any non-critically reviled movie made in the last 10 years. (Crash obviously discounted, for being perhaps, the worst film ever made—period.)

***Because unlike rap music, journalism lamentably isn’t conducive to the “champagne wishes and caviar dream” lifestyle.

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MP3: The Hold Steady-"Sequestered In Memphis"


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