Words by: Kayceman
The Hold Steady :: 07.29.08 :: Mezzanine :: San Francisco, CA
They're just regular guys. They dress normal, act normal and you'd probably walk right past them on your way to the bar if they weren't onstage. The lead singer is completely free of the self-conscious trappings that can plague a frontman and often create a divide between the performer and the audience. Instead Craig Finn pulls the masses closer, knocking down walls by speaking directly to the fans upfront, looking in their eyes and telling stories like we're in his basement while leading the room in double-time clapping. The Hold Steady are just like you and me and all our friends, and that's what endears us to them. This isn't a larger-than-life show, this is life; we know these dudes, and we've been there, too. The music is simple but wickedly smart and powerful, and the songs are grounded in truths and actual experiences. They are both highly literate and totally blue collar. They might get drunk every night and sniff plates all weekend but they also read Vonnegut and subscribe to The New York Times.
Taking the stage to a completely sold out Tuesday night club with a rowdy bunch of drinkers packing the scene, most bands would be lucky to get this type of response on a Saturday. Starting the show with the first song off their new album (a lock for many Top 10 lists), "Constructive Summer" immediately highlighted the band's genius. Sludging '70s guitar riffs meet sing-along choruses and vivid, emotionally-saturated lyrics that send your mind spinning like a film reel:
I went to your schools/ I did my detention
But the walls were so grey that I couldn't pay attention
I read your gospel/ It moved me to tears
But I couldn't find the hate and I couldn't find the fear
I met your savior/ I knelt at his feet
He took my ten bucks and he went down the street
I tried to believe all the things that you said
But my friends that aren't dying are already dead
We are our only saviors
We're gonna build something this summer
These guys aren't building just anything; they're building a legend. This is the type of band that has created their own world with their own lexicon and inside jokes. The kids know every word and they pump their fists in time. Dedicated fans tour with this band and they are rewarded night after night by a group of thirty-somethings that never mail it in and always leave every bit on the stage.
Song after song, each one was sweatier than the last, each story a little dirtier. Like the one about the girl who "let her boyfriend deal with the dealers/ it only gets inconvenient when you wanna get high alone" ("You Can Make Him Like You"); or the chick who came back for Christmas and "just seemed distant and different" ("One For the Cutters," which featured an epic guitar solo on a 12-string double-neck and some haunting accordion); or the desperate gal with "sutures and bruises... excuses and half truths and fortified wine" ("Lord, I'm Discouraged").
But here's the thing: these songs are somehow triumphant. They expose the dark underbelly of our world, but they exorcise the pain with loud guitars, lots of booze and a love of what they do. Like the title track off the new album reminds us, "We gotta stay positive!"
While Finn flops around the stage, emphatically waving his arms like a wet bird trying to take flight and right-hand man Tad Kubler blazes through guitars and styles with ease, the rhythm section of Galen Polivka (bass) and Bobby Drake (drums) swing with massive balls. Every change is huge and there's always a menacing undertone, and it's just one more way The Hold Steady subtly remind listeners of the Drive-By Truckers.
Like the Truckers' Patterson Hood, Craig Finn is an incredible storyteller. These are two of the greatest bar bands of the decade – and both are capable of playing to much larger rooms (although stadiums might be difficult – yet clearly possible based on Springsteen's success). They sing about the same sorta people, but where the DBTs have southern stories, The Hold Steady are from Minnesota and their tales are colored by life in the Midwest (although now they live in Brooklyn).
These guys love their fans, and the relationship that's formed over the years is a big part of this thing. They respect one another and the band always plays the right amount of music. One set is long enough, about an hour and ten to twenty minutes, but not too long, and the encore always leaves the crowd satisfied but wanting more. It keeps 'em coming back, and this night they really showed the love.
After the raucous multi-song encore concluded with a cathartic "Stuck Between Stations" off 2006's breakout album Boys And Girls In America, we were overwhelmed by one of the better shows of the year. The lights came on and the house started playing some acoustic Zeppelin. The place was clearing out and merch was flying off the shelf while the hardcores clapped and screamed near the stage while pounding their drinks. The show was over. The only reason I was still there was the bathroom line. And then, to everyone's surprise, The Hold Steady came back to the stage! They dropped the lights and the band played the best song of the night, whipping the asses of the fifty or so people who never left with ten-minutes of "Killer Parties."
After the huge show and surprise double encore, Craig Finn opened his arms, spread them out in front of his chest and said, "You and all your friends," then pointed to his band, "and us and all our friends, we're all The Hold Steady."
The Hold Steady are on tour now, be a part of it! Dates available here.
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