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The Hold Steady


Concert Review: The Hold Steady at The Crofoot Ballroom, Pontiac, MI, 4/23/14

The Hold Steady are a bar band from Minnesota by way of Brooklyn, New York that combines a joyous love of 70s-style power-and-glory rock with a guy who looks and sounds like a middle aged librarian on vocals. Indeed, Craig Finn is an unlikely rock star if there ever was one, but he’s also got as identifiable and quotable lyrical style as anyone making rock music today. I don’t presume to assume Craig intentionally followed the unfollowable path of Bob Dylan in migrating from the Twin Cities to New York after the dissolution of his former band, Lifter Puller. But he did make that trek. Not that Craig and Dylan are comparable as lyricists. At his best, Dylan was/is a biting commentator, making sense of the world from above all of us swimming around down here. Craig, on the other hand, just wants to party. For better worse, virtually all Hold Steady songs are about the same thing (and often about the same group of recurring characters that pop up throughout the Hold Steady catalog): 17-to-23-year olds (an age bracket Finn himself has defined in interviews) dating, breaking up, going to “killer parties,” and blissing out on drugs, beer, and their favorite records. Furthermore, it’s all delivered in a hyper-verbose, stuffed nose yell-singing style that is at times tonally indistinguishable from a drunk guy breathlessly shouting in your ear at a crowded bar about the crazy party he went to last night. But you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that the Hold Steady aren’t just dumb frat rock – far from it. Thanks in large part to Finn’s obsession with Catholicism, his ruminations on the college-aged party scene take on an almost mythical quality, while also ringing true to anyone who is or has ever been a college aged partier. There’s also the fact that, over the course of five albums, Craig has already come up with more instantly quotable couplets of wacky wisdom for the modern age than Confucius. Pretty much every Hold Steady song has at least a couple of lines that belongs tattooed on thousands of guys’ biceps the world over. Hopefully I never get blackout drunk and decide to get one myself… if that did, I sure hope I’d end up with “Our psalms are sing along songs” or something, and not, say “I can’t stand it when the banging stops.” That would require quite a bit of explanation, huh?

So if you want to truly appreciate the Hold Steady, you’ll have to get over the fact that, no, the singer can’t sing, and allow yourself to become enveloped by the world Craig creates with his lyrics. But if it helps you get a foothold, try ignoring his voice and paying attention to the music, which I would describe as something akin to Jimmy Page playing guitar for the E Street Band circa The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. During their 2005-2008 rise to indie rock stardom, their sound was heavily augmented by mustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay, whose piano interludes and exuberant backup vocals made the band sound, well, kind of like Bruce Springsteen. His off-kilter appearance—he resembles a psychotic French vaudeville performer from the 1920s—also gave them a visible and marketable sideman. He is no longer in the band, whose direction is now totally in the hands of the two guys who have masterminding it the whole time anyway: Craig and guitarist/primary songwriter Tad Kubler (who previously played together in Lifter Puller; Kubler was the bassist). Kubler’s massive riffs and majestic arena hero soloing hearken back to an earlier, less introverted era of rock ‘n roll that isn’t exactly in vogue with the Pitchfork indie rock crowd that has come to revere the Hold Steady. Indeed, their audience is equal parts middle-aged beer drinkers and plaid-adorned hipster types. Somehow, they’ve created a Unified Scene out of this curious coalition, just as they’ve managed to transcend a similar contrast between their music and lyrics. The results have often been spectacular.

One Comment

  1. victoid wrote:

    Another group of supplicants who made the pilgrimage to the sacred city of Brooklyn to absorb some of the magic in the apparitions of Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka and Vic Damone. Others who have made the journey and been blessed by the sacred triumvirate are The National, They Might Be Giants and Citizen Cope.

    The vast number of native high priests are too many to mention, and date to the pre-history of popular music, including virtually every hip-hop superstar not from LA. Jay Z is at the apex.

    Some native Brooklyn artists: Buddy Rich, Lena Horne, Type O Negative, Life of Agony, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Lou Reed, Mos Def, Nilsson, Otis Blackwell, Pat Benatar, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and
    Richie Havens.

    We could also mention Brooklyn as the crucible of new musical genres such as horrorcore, screamo, and nintendocore.

    Verily be Brooklyn the pulse point of the musical universe, at least through the end of the month!

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