Friday, May 20, 2005

Concert Review: The Hold Steady

Bands, not blogs. -- Craig Finn*

Pardon me for starting this off on a pompous note, but the last few weeks have not been kind to a lot of us. Between the filibuster fight, the nutjob crusade against Newsweek, weaponizing space, Iraq's descent into civil war, Kansas's war on science -- goddamn it man, it hurts to get out of bed in the morning, and Auckland sounds better by the day.

I went to The Hold Steady concert tonight more pissed and frazzled than usual, having spent much the day thinking about how we're all fucked. But nothing could have been better. The Hold Steady is the real deal. They're into the canon, man. They've singlehandedly channeled the history of rock. I don't know if they're conscious about it or whether it's a product of the anxiety of influence, but either way, every kick-ass band you've loved in your life breaks out in their music. My short list includes Crazy Horse, the E. Street Band, Skynyrd, Eric Burdon, CCR, the golden-age Stones, the Clash, and most of the bands in the Dazed and Confused soundtrack.** I've also read comparisons to .38 Special, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, and Cheap Trick.

That's a big trip to toss out, but to double the stakes, their lyrics are exactly of this moment in American history. Most of their songs are stories set in the metropolitan underbellies of the Upper Midwest, the kinds of places where Cole Slaw Blog grew up: suburban Minneapolis, Shaker Heights, Michigan City, Chicago. There are abandoned malls, a storefront church, camps down by the banks of the Mississippi River, and presumably fictional place called Penetration Park. (Even small towns in the Midwest have a version of Penetration Park.) As briefly mentioned in an earlier post, the songs are accounts of fucked-up love, drug addiction, sudden bursts of violence. It's the end of the night and everybody's gotten too messed up, having done something bad but not exactly clear as to what. The songs also are filled with religious imagery, everything from Adam and Eve through the Four Horesmen. Everyone's burned out, paradise is lost -- a real soft girl is having real hard times.

Maybe it's a personal thing, but the intense, smart, ultimately playful lyrics, combined with the guitar and/or sax riffs that draw from every song you grew up with, it's an overwhelming thing. I listen to these songs and think to myself, goddamn, New York has a reputation for being rough, but it's not remotely as Darwinian and life-and-death as most of the Midwest.

So yeah, I came to tonight's show at the Bowery Ballroom with a crazy set of expectations, which were satisfied. In the main set, they played straight through their new album Separation Sunday. The encore was four songs from their first album, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me. Flop and I made our ways down toward the front of the stage as the show moved on. I increasingly behaved like a crazed 16-year-old. The Hold Steady is an almost-perfect sing-along band for a jackass like myself, because the lead singer Craig Finn does not have a pretty voice. He sort of shouts out the lyrics. I'd never sing along with U2, but anyone can shout the lyrics to "Stevie Nix" without being embarrassed. From the first words of "Hornets! Hornets!" (spoken loudly, not sung -- "She said always remember never to trust me. She said that the first night that she met me.") I was in a blur.

It looked like Finn was having the time of his life. From my spot about four lines back from the stage, it looked like he was mouthing the words, "I love you so much," to the crowd during the final song. At times he was so giddy he couldn't contain himself, pulling back from the microphone to bounce around the stage, then spitting his lyrics out into the crowd. His grin was huge. He had a rockstar persona but something about it was very humble and approachable.

The dude's got every reason to be thrilled. The band has been getting euphoric press, and every word of it is deserved. Finn looks like the junior partner in the tax department of a law firm. You could imagine him dating your awkward older cousin. Instead of worrying that the press is going to fuck with his head, it instead feels like a reward given to an authentic artist who's earned his due. The best thing that could happen to American music would be for The Hold Steady to have a video in rotation on MTV and a Rolling Stone cover. In comparison, every good band that's alive and kicking sounds neutered, whitewashed, and timid. If it turns out that this country as we know it is doomed, we've got a kick-ass band playing out the good-bye party.

*If the proprietors of Cole Slaw Blog had any musical talent, we'd follow the advice. But until Cole Slaw Nation achieves statehood, we're stuck with this blog. We'd much rather be a band, but it would sound like a developmentally disabled, jugband version of Need New Body, with smashed beer bottles.

**Is this an over the top list? Maybe I'll think so with the passage of time but for now I'm sticking with it.

Final note: To top it off, on the walk home, I stepped on a live rat scurrying down the sidewalk on Clinton between Rivington and Stanton. Was I even rattled or disturbed by this? No -- I was so happy from the show that I barely noticed.

Update: Click here for a collection of beautifully photographed images from the night.


mei said...

etros is plural, etro's is possessive. Etro is the name of the shirtmaker.

winston said...

you will now have to alter your statement about small-town life to say: "i would rather be robbed *and* step on a live rat than walk through b.r. on a pretty day."

CrimeNotes said...

Walking on a rat is nothing compared to living in b.r. In fact, walking on the rat was a small highlight in my life as a New Yorker. Not that I'm glad I hurt an animal or anything, I just barely noticed it until afterward. I was in a concert-induced trance.

Flop said...

I once stepped on a rat on 11th Street near Avenue C. I wasn't in a haze, though. I'm glad crimenotes got to experience the squeaky, creepy randomness of it all.

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