24 Jul 2009: Starland Ballroom Sayreville, NJ
The Hold Steady never play a mere show—they play host to a congregation. Tonight’s show, in the middle of nowhere, New Jersey, has the feeling of a religious revival: There’s plenty of screaming, crying, and a lot of hands waving through the air. And Craig Finn, lead singer and songwriter for the band, is leading his flock with a combination of a pride and amazement. You could say that he’s a lucky man, but luck has very little to do with it.
If the Hold Steady is anything, it’s hard working. In the course of tonight’s show, Finn pulls shapes and makes face, dancing across the stage of the Starland Ballroom like a man possessed. The band behind him just smiles, because even if Finn is the main attraction, the Hold Steady is such a tightly knit musical presence that no member feels unnecessary. Not even Franz Nicolay.
Of course, they couldn’t do this all alone. Openers Titus Andronicus, with their manic pop and impressive facial hair (lead singer Liam Betson sprouts a beard that could put Band of Horses to shame), make for a strange sort of palate cleanser. But an overlong set and mumbling onstage comments didn’t do this band any favors. By just song number three, the anxious hipsters and bar-band lovers have stopped dancing, and started looking at their watches.
When the Hold Steady finally take the stage around 9:30 pm, they’ll remain there for over two hours. To paraphrase “Most People Are DJs”, some kids will end up bruised tonight, and some other kids will fall in love tonight—maybe with Finn himself who, despite looking like a tax accountant on vacation, has one of rock’s most charismatic voices. His performance involves, even requires, the commitment of the audience—pumping their fists at the right moments, or shouting out choruses that Finn pretends to have forgotten. And everyone knows the words.
This is a band in full control of their powers, confident enough to play a setlist that favors their early material, even if Stay Positive is the name on all the merchandise. When Finn and co., blast into an anthemic version of “Southtown Girls”, (a song that never got much attention to begin with) there’s practically a panic; when a heavy version of “Hornets!, Hornets!” starts playing, everyone sings along.
It’s a rare band where the lead single from the latest album (“Sequestered in Memphis”) gets a throwaway reception somewhere before the encore, but the old-school “Charlemagne in Sweatpants” gets a rapturous welcome. Where the opening number is “Most People Are DJs”, a punky opus from debut Almost Killed Me, and their four-song encore includes only one recent single. But the Hold Steady don’t exactly play by the rules. Their mashup of religious values and rock ‘n’ roll spirit could come off as inauthentic in less talented hands, but Craig Finn knows just how to walk that fine line. The classic “Stevie Nix”, with its jubilant cheer of “Lord, to be 33 forever,” finds Finn playing prophet to the assembled masses. But who can blame him? Beloved by the kids who’ve memorized his every lyric, it’s pretty easy for Finn to feel like a king right now.
Maybe that’s why the usually ubiquitous cameras and cell phones are nowhere to be seen tonight—because this is a band that thrives on the live experience, on the communion between the fans and the group. To try and capture it for posterity just wouldn’t do it justice. This is rock at its purest, the kind of thing that brings together the skater punks, the hardcore kids, the dads and the dropouts, and everyone in between. You can put it on YouTube, download it, stream it, and look it up on Wikipedia—but there are some things technology just can’t replace. As Craig Finn himself might say, it’s a minor miracle.