The Hold Steady

[17 June 2004]

By Chris Bailey

The most important thing on Craig Finn’s mind was, of course, the Timberwolves game. After going to New York following the dissolution of his first band, Minneapolis’ beloved Lifter Puller, The Hold Steady frontman seems to cherish his roughneck Twin Cities culture all the more in the face of all those “clever kids” up in Williamsburg. Mid-set, when someone informed him that the the T-wolves were up by 18 with a couple minutes left, he just smiled and said, “I’m comfortable with that.” This may not seem like much, but the simple fact that they discussed sports at an indie rock show (how pedestrian!) says a lot about The Hold Steady. They may be based in New York, but their music just exudes the feeling of four guys and a case of cheap beer in a Midwest basement.

After the basketball bit, The Hold Steady tore into the crowd first with “Positive Jam”, track one on their debut, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me. With its rallying cry of “we gotta start it off with a positive jam,” The Hold Steady are pretty much forced to open their shows with this song for the duration of their career. This first song was pretty much the best of the set, too. The softer songs off Almost Killed Me fared a lot better live, since Craig Finn’s poorly-miked vocals were too often drowned out in the more robust numbers. As anyone who’s heard the album can tell you, Finn’s vocals are the crux of the band. Those who hate The Hold Steady whine about his grating voice, and those who love them fawn uncontrollably about his hard-drinkin’, scene-bashin’ lyrics. But during “Positive Jam”, as he looked out over the sea of asymmetrical haircuts at the Fireside and ordered “All the sniffling indie kids / Hold steady”, it was hard to see how anyone could help basking in the irony.

The band went through Almost Killed Me‘s best songs, with “Certain Songs”, the aformentioned “Positive Jam,” and the closing lament of “Killer Parties” as particular standouts. Before the mad, more-classic-rock-than-a-bar-in-New-Jersey onslaught of “Most People are DJs”, Finn postulated that those damn music critics had misinterpreted the meaning of the song. “I don’t have anything against disco, or dance, or electroclash, I think some people call it. It’s just that, if you’re going to make that kind of music, please have the decency to make it two years ago.” “Most People Are DJs” is clearly the band’s best song, and despite guitarist Tad Kubler’s amazing old school guitar heroics, it was a little disappointing not to be able to hear the full sneering blast of Finn’s voice.

“Knuckles”, a song about self-given nicknames and crystal meth, fared better, with the mid-song breakdown of “I’ve been tryin’ to get people to call me Sunny D / ‘Cause I got the good stuff kids go for” drawing amens from the crowd. The Hold Steady laid it down for sure, though, on “Killer Parties”, with the guitars quieting down and Finn’s voice taking over. After recounting his stumbles through rock ‘n’ rock parties, he hilariously crossed himself, took a step back, and yelled the last lines of “If she says we partied / then I’m pretty sure we partied” away from the mic, letting his words be drowned out by some more impressive Kubler shredding. After to listening to Finn skewer his generation for 45 minutes, then seeing him yelling out in futility in his Twins T-shirt, I realized that was just it with this band. Despite the b-i-g guitars and the cocky digs at the scene, their just doing what we all have to do. In a world of clever people parties, taxmen in Kevlar vests, weird talking chicks, critics, and DJs, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler know it’s all they can do to just try and hold steady.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hold-steady-040523/