Sunday, June 27, 2010


For several years now The Hold Steady have been consistently (persistently?) recommended to me, citing the musical influences of band leader Craig Finn as reason to like them. But my passing acquaintance with the occasional songs has not brought to mind The Replacements, The Grifters or Husker Du but instead unremarkable Springsteen bombast.

However some of those odd songs heard from around the time “Stay Positive” was released in 2008 and onwards, have slowly started to penetrate my shield of negativity. Then there are the tales of the sweat-drenched, life-affirming live shows. So the chance to see them play the relatively small Academy 2 as a Glastonbury warm-up was the perfect opportunity to finally see if The Hold Steady live lived up to these reports.

The opening three songs, mixing old and new, was a potent statement of intent: The Hold Steady are here to play loud and to rock. ‘Stuck Between Stations’, ‘Hurricane J’ and ‘Sequestered In Memphis’ are all trademark riff-laden, urgent call-to-arms anthems that had the crowd hoisting, spilling and ultimately throwing beer. And lead singer Craig Finn seemed to be inviting those beer-throwers to take pot-shots at him. Finn is not a grizzled, hard-as-nails rocker: he looks and dances like the accountant at the office Xmas party who only gets out once a year. But throughout he grins maniacally as though even after five albums and all these years of touring he still cannot believe he is actually in a band. So his was not such confrontational baiting of the crowd and more an invitation to share his good fortune.

My lack of familiarity with some sections of The Hold Steady back catalogue meant that parts of the set blurred into each other. But this was not just the fault of that unfamiliarity but a bass-heavy sound that often swamped the vocals when all three guitars kicked in together. Too often the sound became an unsubtle and relentless thud. The mosh-pit couldn’t care less though – every song old and new was greeted uproariously and sung along to loudly. ‘Chips Ahoy’ was the one that truly sent the crowd wild (I can still taste the beer on my skin and in my hair – even after showering).

The main set finished with ‘Slapped Actress’. Now this is one of the songs I am more familiar with - and hearing it I realised what was lost. The song’s dynamic tension, a slow build and fall punctuated with quiet or massed whoo-hoos was replaced with that dull thud. The encores seemed to rectify this: for ‘First Night’ electric guitars were replaced for acoustics – and hey I could hear the keyboards! Final encore ‘Killer Parties’ was the one were they nailed the quiet/loud dynamic perfectly and Finn became more theatrical than simply the clowning singer; and it was so much better for it. Now if the whole gig had been like this I might have walked away a convert.

It was still a good night but I think I will stick to listening to The Hold Steady in small doses and build up from there by degrees. And maybe then I’ll stop the petty carping and join the word-perfect singalong faithful in the mosh-pit. For most of these people, tonight was Christmas and the Second Coming rolled into one and toasted royally with Budweiser and Red Stripe. Sound mix problems? What problems??

The Hold Steady
Heaven Is Whenever [BUY]

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