Brooklyn’s the Hold Steady has become one of the hardest working, critically-acclaimed live indie rock bands of the past decide. Its concerts are characterized by frontman Craig Finn’s infectiously energetic delivery style and the band’s magical, classic rock-infused chemistry. The Hold Steady’s music represents a delightfully perverse amalgamation of the Rolling Stones’ unbridled sexuality, Jack Kerouac’s open-road spirit, and the Replacement’s independent sensibility. While the group’s live shows are often venerated to a sacred level above itss five studio LPs, the astonishing performances wouldn’t be possible without a prodigious collection of skillfully constructed songs.
Listed below you will find ten songs that represent the Hold Steady’s straightforward yet contagiously energetic sensibility. Each of these tunes stands out not only as a staple at Hold Steady concerts (with one or two notable exceptions), but also as the most memorable moments in the band’s varied recorded catalog. No doubt, any of these ten songs would make a great “gateway drug” for anyone interested in discovering the charms of the group for the first time. Happy listening!
“Stay Positive” serves as the de facto theme song for the Hold Steady at live shows. The band, with its upbeat music and optimistic vibes, tries to live up to the ideals expressed in this tune. The song speaks of changing times and values (“The kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own / The sing-along songs will be our scriptures”). Craig Finn rather brilliantly refers back to “Positive Jam”, the first song from the group’s debut record Almost Killed Me (“It’s one thing to start it with a positive jam / And it’s another thing to see it all through”). Musically, the song’s jaunty, eighth-note-driven rhythm reflects the sunny lyrics. It’s always a highlight of the concert when the band’s fans sing out “whoa-oh-oh-oh, we gotta stay positive” in unison.
Lyrically, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” could be considered a template for virtually every Hold Steady song. It addresses such classic Hold Steady topics as ambiguous relationships, drug culture, and specific locations in Minneapolis. Musically, it embraces the kind of simplicity that makes it a favorite sing-along at the band’s shows. It’s a relatively short song and has no solo breaks or lead lines. For a group that is known for playing extended jams at times, the recorded version reflects a kind of admirable brevity. The song’s emotional honesty is infectious; as the speaker insists, “I ain’t never been with your little hoodrat friend”, the listener is inclined to believe him.
Here’s a funny little story. The speaker, apparently talking to the cops, relays a tale about dancing, things “getting heavy when we got to the bathroom”, and going to “some place where she cat-sits”. The protagonist has been “subpoenaed in Memphis” and “sequestered in Texas”. The fact that the crime the speaker is accused of is not spelled out for the listener in black and white reflects the ambiguous fun of many Hold Steady lyrics. The saxophone on the chorus adds a different texture for the band, and Hold Steady crowds have fun singing this track’s desperate, geographically-specific chorus over and over again.
(Almost Killed Me)
Of all things, the Hold Steady began its recording career with a history lesson. The lyrics here speak of waking up “in the ‘20s and there were flappers and fruits in white suits”. The speaker then takes the listener through the ‘40s (“There were wheelchairs, guns, and tickertapes”), ‘50s (“Holding hands and going steady”), ‘60s (“Some Kennedys got shot and you were screwing San Francisco”), ‘70s (“We woke up on bloody carpets”), ‘80s (“Some Kennedy OD’ed while we watched on MTV”), and ‘90s (“Put it all down on technology and lost everything we invested”). Through it all, though, Finn insists that “we gotta start it with a positive jam”. The Hold Steady immediately laid the groundwork for the musical qualities that would follow tit the rest of its career, with Finn’s pseudo-spoken word delivery style, imagery-heavy lyrics, and guitar-driven choruses. As Finn states in this song, “I was bored when I didn’t have a band.” Thank goodness he got over his boredom.
“Stevie Nix” may just be the most pure fun the Hold Steady has ever laid down on tape. From the opening, Exile on Main Street-like guitar riff, to the gentle organ on the bridge, to the multiple pop culture references in the lyrics (Stevie Nicks, Mary Tyler Moore, Rod Stewart, etc.), this track covers a lot of ground. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay is also at his best here. A slow, quiet section in the middle of the tune features the most unguarded, emotionally resonant piano part in the band’s catalog. The gentle touch of the piano reflects the song’s lyrics about the passage of time (“Lord, to be 17 forever… Lord, to be 33 forever”). The track then builds to some killer dual lead guitar parts that end the song, leaving the listener feeling as if he or she’s truly been on a fascinating journey.