The Hold Steady @ Manchester Club Academy (13.2.07.)
We party differently over here than they do in the States. Our highly defined sense of irony can’t help but get in the way sometimes. So when faced with the unabashed arena-rock of The Hold Steady, the temptation is there to sneer or worse, to pull our best ROCK shapes. We might look like we’re enjoying ourselves and for the most part we are, but there’s always that underlying insincerity, the willingness to mock in the face of pure, unadulterated conviction in what is a borderline anachronistic musical art form.
Not that The Hold Steady actually give a shit either way, they’re way too wrapped up in their music for any posed bullshit to even register. The Hold Steady live experience is an exercise in raw passion and fervour, with the band enjoying every moment of each perfectly-poised power chord in such a near-orgasmic manner that any tendencies towards derision are dashed and you just kind of get swept up in the whole thing. From the moment they launch into supercharged set opener, ‘Stuck Between Stations’, the band’s zeal and delight instantly rubs off on the crowd, with the hardcores towards the front going especially crazy.
The first thing that hits you about frontman Craig Finn (besides the fact that he’s a lot smaller in real life than you expect him to be), is that his stage manner is a lot different from the persona he projects on record. On their three albums, Finn comes over as sardonic, preacher-like and, above all, a wise storyteller. On stage, however, he leaps around like a sugar-addled toddler, grinning and clapping at the crowd, obviously revelling in the fact that he’s up there, playing his songs to people. He really is the embodiment of his music’s inherent joy and celebration.
Not that the rest of the band aren’t as charismatic as Finn; keyboardist, Franz Nicolay is particularly magnetic. All orchestrated hand gestures and sartorial elegance (he looks like a villain from a 1920s silent flick, more readily predisposed to tying women to train tracks than banging out rousing piano lines), he’s the band’s aesthetic focal point.
This would all be just a conceit if it weren’t for the tunes though and watching The Hold Steady live is the best way to ‘get’ them. These songs, despite the narrative drive and poeticism that Finn gives his lyrics being somewhat lost in the fudgy mix, are built to be played live. In particular the songs from latest album, Boys And Girls In America, with the call-and-response of ‘Massive Nights’, the chiming singalong of ‘You Can Make Them Like You’ and the riotous, Husker Du-esque ‘Same Kooks’ all standing out.
The old songs are as integral a part of their live set as the new ones though, with ‘Stevie Nix’ providing one of the night’s big lighters-in-the-air moments and a closing ‘How A Resurrection Really Feels’ sending the assembled home with a tangible sense of communality and shared experience. So while the concept of party pits, penetration parks and hoodrats may well seem like artifice to us Brits and despite the fact that Springsteen as an influence is still not considered ‘cool’ over here, The Hold Steady make a winning case for hedonism and the unifying need to get loose and get down being relatable, no matter how you dress it up.