When a great band is at their peak, there’s nothing else quite like it. They belong to an era, or, in certain cases, an era belongs to them. It would probably be hyperbole to assert that the Hold Steady have reached that level of cultural significance. They aren’t the Beatles or U2. On the other hand, their competition for best band of the 2000s isn’t too stiff. Not that the Hold Steady are looking to rumble with the likes of Coldplay and TV on the Radio. They’re very happy just being themselves and sharing that happiness with their fans. Or, to use the guys’ own lingo, they want to share their “joy”.
This is a word you’ll hear a lot across the documentary DVD and concert CD that comprise the latest release from the Hold Steady, A Positive Rage. This duo of artifacts captures a terrific band at their joyful peak, as they conquer America (and London) while touring for 2006’s Boys and Girls in America. That was their third studio album, and first for bigger indie label Vagrant. The band had spent the previous three years gaining momentum, arguably making better records each time out, and booking bigger venues with each subsequent jaunt across the country.
The DVD half of A Positive Rage intersperses interviews and backstage banter with live footage of the Hold Steady playing legendary mid-sized venues from the Borderline in London to San Francisco’s Great American Hall, and culminating back in the band’s home town of Minneapolis, at the famed First Avenue. The DVD’s aesthetic sensibility falls squarely into the documentary mold, so most of the live footage is of middling quality. If you’ve checked out some fan-submitted YouTube videos of live Hold Steady songs, then you’ve already pretty much matched the experience of watching the concert segments of A Positive Rage.
This might seem like a negative point, but it’s all in keeping with the spirit of the DVD. If you want to feel like you’re hanging out with the Hold Steady on a national tour, then this documentary will take you there. You’ll slug back beers with guitarist Tad Kubler back stage, sit at a café table with singer Craig Finn while he’s being interviewed by the British press, and meet drummer Bobby Drake’s cool and very supportive parents. You’ll join in on group high fives before bounding out onto the stage. And then you’ll be magically transported out into the audience, clapping double-time during a Franz Nicolay organ solo. You’ll be grinning madly, just like everyone around you, including the band. The Hold Steady’s joy is infectious.
The live CD was recorded one year after the documentary’s footage was filmed, at the Metro in Chicago, on October 31, 2007. Fortunately, the quality of this recording is way higher than the DVD’s. Rather than feeling like you’re out in the crowd, this CD plugs you into the soundboard for top-notch fidelity. The Hold Steady rip through a terrific set of all their best material from their first three records, with an emphasis on Boys and Girls in America (which supplies half of A Positive Rage‘s track listing). Admittedly, there aren’t a ton of surprises to be found in the performances here. The Hold Steady are a true blue rock ‘n’ roll band, so their live shows sound pretty much like their albums do. The band riff hard while Finn bark-sings about youth in trouble and in love, and they do this incredibly well. Finn is charismatic as hell, the rhythmic section is tight, Kubler solos like a ’70s guitar god, and Nicolay is the Rick Wakeman of bar bands. And songs like “Chips Ahoy”, “Barfruit Blues”, and their already classic “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” are some of the best from this nearly concluded decade.
Besides, the Hold Steady aren’t trying to surprise their listeners. They’re not looking to pull off any grand illusions. They just want to play good music and connect with their fans. As Craig Finn exclaims during “Killer Parties”, the concert’s final number, “There’s so much joy in what we do up here! I want to thank you for being here to share that joy with us.” Whether you’ve never been to a Hold Steady show or are jonesing for a fix between tours, A Positive Rage will leave you feeling joyfully connected to one of the best bands of today. To quote Finn once more: “We are — and, more importantly, you are — we all are the Hold Steady”.