When one considers bands who are flying the flag for literate American bands, steeped in the Country’s musical heritage who make unashamedly energised rock’n’roll- Phil Spector wall of sound, Roy Bittan E-Street piano, tales of growing up a music fan. Groups such as Marah, Gaslight Anthem or the Drive-by Truckers come to mind.
Here’s another one – The Hold Steady.
Their very American-ness has held them back a little commercially in the UK, combined with their ordinary blokes look and persona. Craig Finn is not your usual photogenic frontman, skittering around the stage, permanently engaged in two conversations – one on mic sermonising about the boys and girls in America, the second off mic delivering a commentary on his own commentary, throwing his arms up quizzically or hands together in an apologetic prayer.
They are back in London and what is apparent is that despite their lack of record sales, it hasn’t harmed the commitment of their core fan base. This is one of those bands that attracts a diehard fanaticism. Everyone knows all of the words – and given Finn’s turn of phrase that is a lot of words.
If I’m being honest, I think part of the band’s difficulty to appeal was around Finn’s vocals but as time has worn on his voice has moved beyond just being a narrative tool into something closer to his hero Bob Mould of Husker Du’s delivery and introduced more melody. Finn always strikes as the guy who is trying to convince the beautiful but tragic girl to split up with the jock boyfriend who treats her like trash. Eventually, she’ll get the message but not before it is too late.
This was the second night of a two-night residency at the Electric Ballroom with a follow up on Sunday at the Lexington. Many had travelled long distances to attend, Finn commenting that the winners of the air miles award were from South Korea and New Zealand. That’s some commitment but this is the type of support that this band engenders. The sense of community was palpable. Men hugged (mostly) other men. The girls joined in the singalongs. Everyone joined in the frequent clapalongs.
It’s like a throwback to the glory days of the Clash or the Jam. In fact, we left the building to Weller’s “English Rose” after the band had walked on to Mott’s version of “All The Young Dudes”. If you were in any doubt where their English music tastes lie, those two tunes give you a decent idea.
The band’s musical palette has widened. The return of keyboard player Franz Nicolay has helped, with his E-Street like flourishes. The twin guitars of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge allow the band to pick up the slack given Finn’s infrequent playing of his guitar which is often a prop for his unique style of delivery. The rhythm section of Bobby Drake and Galen Polivka remain tight.
The band have always been storytellers but as time has gone on this has coalesced into something that approaches a more traditional verse/chorus format. The recurring characters like Charlemagne reoccur but know the canvas is now broader. I take my hat off to any band that work the words “subpoenaed” and “sequestered” into a singalong. The musical references are there too. “Hot Soft Light” is one of the great songs about being a teenage rock fan (“and the band played Sabbath Bloody Sabbath/Screaming For Vengeance”) up there with Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” and The Drive-By Truckers’ “Let There Be Rock”. It captures the togetherness of loving a band and that love finds its way back to the Hold Steady themselves.
After two hours of back to back excitement, Finn put the lid on the evening by stating “We Are All The Hold Steady”. Fair play to the band. They’ve worked hard to generate their career and their solid fanbase. There is something special about them. They are not musical revolutionaries. It has all been done before.
But when it is done with the skill, energy and gusto of the Hold Steady, then it easy to love.