A Hold Steady show throws a little bit of dissonance at you. For starters, there’s the band’s appearance. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear your high school math teachers had somehow stormed the stage. Apart from mustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who rocks a Snidely-Whiplash’s-hipster-twin vibe, the Hold Steady come across like a bunch of average Joe’s who might be playing the local bar on a Friday night. I mean, how many lead guitarists sport a double-neck Gibson SG and a polo shirt at the same time?
Any confusion’s quickly remedied the minute they start playing, though, and you realize that the second thing that ought to mess with your head—front man Craig Finn’s tumbling, hyper-verbal, rapid-fire lyrics blending with the band’s soaring hooks and choruses—actually works beautifully.
This night in Athens, the Hold Steady delivered a Rock Show in the best sense of the phrase. The 40 Watt Club was packed and sweltering. Openers the Loved Ones warmed up the crowd and probably made a few new fans of their own. The crowd, hoisting PBR tallboys like they were going out of style, had a warm fuzzy vibe that was just right for loud guitars and sing-along choruses. It was this welcoming environment that the Hold Steady controlled for two hours. Finn, a complete showman, worked the crowd all night; pointing all around the room and stepping back from the mic to mouth and pantomime reactions to the lyrics he’d just sung. From the back of the room, it often looked like Finn stood hip-deep in a sea of waving arms, evoking communal front men like Bono and Springsteen, as the occasional geyser of beer shot up about six feet into the air from fans’ plastic cups.
That Springsteen comparison is obvious from the band’s records, but the live show brings it to the fore even more. Finn doesn’t indulge in the Boss’ between-song monologues, but the band’s set list is one big appeal for community and positivity. It’s not coincidence that the band’s debut, 2004’s Almost Killed Me, begins with a statement-of-purpose called “Positive Jam”, or that the new disc’s centerpiece is its title track, “Stay Positive”. For all of the junkies, hoodrats, overdoses, and blood to be found in the Hold Steady’s songs, the entire point of the band’s output is to cast an unflinching eye and lend a sympathetic voice. This listener has never thought Finn sought to undermine the whole Springsteen mythos; he’s too busy documenting his own different “scene” (to use the word Finn’s most fond of). Finn does, however, envision what’s arguably a darker future for many of his characters—or at least one with sharper turning points. Springsteen’s heroes and heroines often make it to middle age after a life of slowly accumulated regrets. Finn’s kids face nights of no return and cultural sea changes (“There’s gonna come a time when the scene will seem less sunny / It will probably get druggy and the kids will seem too skinny”) that may prevent them from ever getting that far.
At this point in their career, Finn’s constructed a mythology of his own, populated by characters like Charlemagne and Hallelujah, characters who reappear time and time again, as evolving archetypes and patron saints of Finn’s bar-lit landscapes. His conscious recycling of lines and images, over the course of four albums, now feels less like acute observations and more like prophecy. Even though the band didn’t play “Hornets! Hornets!” in Athens, its confession that “there’s gonna come a time when I have to go with whoever’s gonna get me the highest” surely acted as a backdrop in the minds of longtime fans when Finn sang “There’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go / With whoever’s gonna get her the highest” from “Stay Positive”. At this point, it seems like some of Finn’s characters are locked into unavoidable fates, with Judas kisses waiting at the end. Finn stands outside of the scene by virtue of his age and by his role as chronicler, but as he states himself, “Most kids give me credit / For being down with it / When it was back in the day / Back when things were way different”. And as he sang at the end of this show, he reflected on the fact that “killer parties almost killed me.”
When Finn’s on stage, reminding the audience that Jack Kerouac’s dead and that “we could all be something bigger,” it doesn’t sound like he’s lecturing. It comes across like he’s saying, “Let’s get off our collective asses and make it better.” Even though Finn’s old enough to be the dad of many fans, he feels a mixture of camaraderie and responsibility towards them. He hasn’t forgotten the restlessness and boredom that feed the chaos. When he sings of his own exploits, it’s not just bravado. He might sing that “I’ve been dusted in the dark up in Penetration Park and I’ve been plastered,” but he also expresses horror at a girl’s self-mutilation (“I can’t stand all the things that she sticks into her skin, like sharpened ballpoint pens and steel guitar strings”) in “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”.
On this night, the crowd responded in kind. Granted, there’s always an element of any crowd—especially with a raucous band like the Hold Steady—that just wants to get drunk and hoot ‘n’ holler. But the majority of the audience seemed tuned into Finn’s vibe, resulting in plenty of sing-along’s (including a nice a cappella lead-in to “Southtown Girls”), nonstop jumping and fist-pumping, some call-and-response, and even some synchronized clapping (nothing that would threaten Queen’s fans at the top of that category, but respectable nonetheless). They roared at the first notes of longtime favorites like “You Can Make Him Like You”, “Killer Parties”, “Barfruit Blues”, and “Chips Ahoy!”, and readily welcomed the plentiful Stay Positive material. The good-natured, ironic cheers that met the appearance of guitarist Tad Kubler’s double-neck Gibson quickly turned to sincere appreciation when he pulled out some fittingly epic solos.
Towards the end of the show, at the end of the second encore, Finn told the crowd, “there’s a lot of joy in what we do up here,” and it was obvious. The songs are full of hard-luck stories, but there’s a positivity that really shone through as lines like “we’re gonna build something this summer” and “we are our own saviors” anchored the show. By night’s end, the show’s opening lyrics—“Me and my friends are like / The drums on ‘Lust for Life’ / We pound it out on floor toms / Our psalms are sing-along songs”—seemed like a prophecy of their own. I don’t know how anyone else felt, but on this night at least, the Hold Steady delivered the kind of show that can keep you believing in rock ‘n’ roll.