The A&R Music Bar, Columbus, Ohio – February 3, 2014
Craig Finn’s lyrics are rich, involving and endlessly evocative, of a specific time, place and mood that he wants to make universal. Listening to his band, The Hold Steady, one feels instantly included, like he has a place at the table, or at the end of the bar with his friends, around some summer bonfire, checking out the girl playing pool across the room or listlessly counting stars on a cloudless night, always wrapped up in contemplation of both what’s passed and what’s next. Finn paints scenes that, to me, are of a piece in quality with and seem direct descendants of renowned classic rock lyricists like Springsteen and Jackson Browne. They are small scale epics, highly personalized tales of aimless fun, regrets and redemption. You get the feeling that every word Finn speaks or sings (or, more accurately, speak-sings) comes directly from his soul. It might sound exhausting to parse and digest the work of someone so open and unguarded, and there is some truth to that. More often, though, it’s just exhilarating. He makes you feel included, and, frankly, his band rocks like all hell.
Me and my friends are like / the drums on “Lust for Life” / we pound it out on floor toms / our psalms are sing-along songs…
Finn’s lyrics are the sprawling, messy but confident centerpiece of each of The Hold Steady’s five studio albums (their sixth, “Teeth Dreams”, comes out in late March), but the band live is an altogether different animal. Last night at the Arena District’s A&R Music Bar – easily one of Columbus, Ohio’s thirty or so best 300-seaters – The Hold Steady cut right to the chase and delivered an exuberant, intoxicating 105-minute rock and roll clinic. The elemental power of a standard issue guitar/bass/drums rock band – the throb, the thunder, the impact – is, of course, increasingly ignored and devalued in today’s musical landscape, but I’ve long since stopped shedding tears for our future. I think there will always be curious, adventurous kids who want either a deeper, more textural or thudding, more primal sort of musical experience, the breed that Pro Tools, auto-tune and slick production can’t manage or even approximate. Why not seek those kids out, and help guide them toward a different path? They’ll happily spend their whole lives exploring. The rest will never know what they were missing anyway, which is still a shame, because The Hold Steady is exactly the type of band I’d want them to know.
It’s not like young bands are ever really going to stop playing guitar in garages, but the thing that has always struck me about The Hold Steady live is how awesome and thick its particular sound is. Two guitars (three when you count Finn, although he told the crowd his New Year’s resolution was to, “stop playing fake guitar so much”) and a bass in concert have rarely sounded so deep and vibrant and formidable to me (outside of a metal context, and even then it’s by definition not the same) as what The Hold Steady is able to accomplish live. This is throwback, capital “R” Rock and Roll that still sounds timeless and vibrant, not anachronistic. Also notable from a songwriting standpoint, I think, is the band’s prodigious use of the “stop-start”, that moment where the song, building toward an apparent climax, stops on a dime for a slight beat then powers back into the previous line stronger than ever. This sort of trick seems like it might get old, but it really never stops working, and those isolated beats were the closest thing to a breath the band took for perhaps the show’s first 30 minutes. The Hold Steady’s catalogue is replete with up-tempo bar rock stompers, and its preferred M.O. early on was to launch from one anthem directly into the next, maximizing the momentum, minimizing the dead air, and pulling the giddy capacity audience ever further into its orbit. Even when the show slowed down, they were never in the least danger of losing us.
2014 marks The Hold Steady’s tenth anniversary, and the tour celebrating this milestone is appropriately all over the map. I’ve only become a serious fan in the last five years or so (their most recent two albums are by far my favorites), and the setlist contained many of my favorites (“The Weekenders”, “Southtown Girls”, “Sequestered in Memphis”) while making room for perfectly integrated older songs I wasn’t as familiar with (as a tribute to Kiss’ recent Rock Hall of Fame nod, Finn channeled his inner Paul Stanley when introducing “Banging Camp”, exulting, “This ain’t no baaaaand camp! This ain’t no gooooolf camp!”) and even a couple of songs off their forthcoming record (the solid advance single “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and the more subdued, kind of lovely “The Ambassador”). The band members were loose, relaxed and clearly enjoying themselves. Their extended hiatus between albums this time around seems to have suited them.
The band’s energy never flagged, and Finn, of course, is a kind of wind-up toy of a front man anyway, consumed with enthusiasm and eager to share it. “I started this band when I was 31,” he told the crowd in one of the evening’s many moments of commiseration. “I thought my rock and roll dreams were over. We just wanted to get together, hang out, drink beer, have fun. It turns out that kind of thing is contagious.” The crowd roared its approval. Finn, always an engaging presence, seems utterly grateful for his success and for the experiences and connections it’s brought him. And in a night teeming with audience participation (singing the chorus of “Chips Ahoy”, overzealous fans shouting out lyrics during a song’s pregnant pause, clap alongs too numerous to recount), it was “Constructive Summer” (my favorite THS song, and the source of the above lyric swatch), verse two, line one, where we all sang the loudest. Me and my friends are like / double whiskey, coke, no ice. Add a few exclamation points and you have an idea of how it sounded live. I hadn’t expected it, but I loved it. It was surprising, and wonderful.
We were, in many respects, a captive audience. Hold Steady fans may be smaller in number than some others, but I’ve seen the band pack far larger venues (a couple summers ago, I watched them, sick but determined to have a good night, from the balcony of the Newport Music Hall, a 1700-seater that management only opens up fully once the floor is packed), so I think THS picked this spot for more aesthetic reasons. The A&R Bar is adjacent to the L.C. Pavilion, and was designed much more for concert pre-gaming and after parties than to host shows itself, though in terms of the bands that do play there it is perhaps the most stylistically diverse venue of the complex’s trio. In 20-degree weather, the garage doors leading to the patio were all closed, and we were shoehorned into the limited space between those doors and the bar. Once you found your spot, you were essentially stuck there. I couldn’t even properly throw my beer cup away. After a while, I just tucked it in one of the pockets of my hoodie so I could properly clap along. I was surrounded by taller people and my view further obstructed by a large column, though the tangled snarl loosened just a bit as the night went on. It took me four or five songs before I could even see Finn, so I caught his reflection from time to time in the closed garage door window nearest the stage, smiliing inwardly at my ingenuity. I’m sure many people had similar inconveniences, but nobody seemed to mind. The crowd was happy, engaged, and, I must say, in pretty good voice for a stereotypical faceless throng of humanity. Elbow to elbow, grinning ear to ear. You know, regular Monday night-type stuff.