In a week that saw the demise of the NME’s print edition after sixty-odd years, it is reassuring that some traditions remain.
The country is still run by incompetents, it’s impossible to find a telecoms provider whose call centre isn’t indescribably awful, and The Hold Steady are still introducing (so much) joy to the world through their evangelistic live shows.
If the Hold Steady have passed you by, here’s the lowdown:
- Originally from Minneapolis, lead singer Craig Finn and lead guitarist Tad Kubler formed The Hold Steady In 2003 when watching The Band concert film The Last Waltz. Finn asked Kubler, “Dude, why aren’t there any bands like this anymore?” and they realised something had to be done.
- Within three years they had released two albums of classic rock combined with lyrics heavy on catholic small town angst to critical acclaim.
- The Hold Steady came to prominence with third album “Boys and Girls in America”. People caught up with Craig Finn’s kitchen sink soap operas of teenage delinquents in small towns who went to parties, drank and got high. Finn’s characters were multi-dimensional, inhabiting a fictional world that was somehow a romantic version of everyday life.
Picture Finn as a non-creepy Woody Allen figure singing Springsteen songs, and you have the right idea.
They were a party band, never sober onstage, and a fourth album, “Stay Positive” was released in 2008, reaching the top 30 in the USA and U.K.
All was going well, but the fun was interrupted when Kubler was diagnosed with pancreatitis – a legacy of his drinking. Like the line in their song, killer parties almost killed him. A European tour was cancelled, and keyboardist Franz Nicolay quit. The year was 2010.
Two more albums followed, but it seemed that they had perhaps burned out. Finn is 47 this year, and the rock n roll lifestyle is seldom one that features in health and fitness books or workout tapes.
So how does a band rejuvenate themselves while growing – along with their fans – into middle age?
Finn appears to have hit upon an answer. Instead of touring, he has decided to play a series of residencies. Starting in New York last year, The Hold Steady played four gigs on the trot, around the weekend, just so their fans wouldn’t have to get to bed too late during the week.
Last night they played Camden’s Electric Ballroom for the first of two nights there, followed by a gig – and a Sunday lunch – at The Lexington on Sunday.
Finn is a compelling front man, a manic street preacher singing exaltations to his characters – hood rats, kooks and Southtown Girls.
The Gibson guitars produce a ferocious crunch and the band are at maximum volume. The set begins with a triple singalong whammy of “Stuck Between Stations”, “The Swish” and “Sequestered in Memphis”. It’s a dream start.
Two thirds of “Boys and Girls in America” gets an airing, including a raucous “Chips Ahoy!”
And there’s something else too – the band have recorded some new songs and “Eureka” gets its debut.
Finn has an easy rapport with the crowd, joking about Paul Stanley of Kiss while introducing “First Night” and explaining how he has managed to get around, and yet maintain his annual pledge to give up drinking for Lent, by…moving Lent a couple of weeks forward. Very simple. No doubt it will be official Catholic Church’s policy before too long…
And Finn’s rapport is one of the many things that makes The Hold Steady such a compelling live band. They have the songs, the singalongs, the choruses and the quirky, catchy lyrics. Then there is the power, the crunch and the sheer volume of twin guitars – for example in the Thin Lizzy style guitars of Southtown Girls. There’s energy – no-one stands still for a minute, and the crowd is constantly being whipped into life. There’s personality; the keyboard player in this band has more charisma than many front men, and Finn’s delivery, his loser-made-good persona is endearing.
But most of all, The Hold Steady has, in their own words, So. Much. Joy.
They have overcome the challenges of the rock n roll lifestyle in their own way and not without learning a harsh lesson or two on the way. But they have found a way to make it work, and get up onstage with smiles, making it look like being a member of the Hold Steady is the best job in the world. And tonight, judging from the beers thrown in the air, the jumping, bouncing and dancing, the Electric Ballroom in London would agree.
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