Saturday, August 20, 2005

A belated appreciation of The Hold Steady

About two weeks ago, Flop, atrain and I went to see The Hold Steady play at Bowery Ballroom. The Hold Steady is the first band that I've ever loved in its prime. No matter how many times I listen to Rust Never Sleeps, I'll never get to see what it was like for Neil Young and Crazy Horse to play "Powderfinger" in 1978. Ditto for the Stones and Dylan. I'm lucky that the performers I've loved since junior high continued to perform and be productive into my adulthood, although Neil is the only one who remains consistently jawdropping.

Before The Hold Steady, I never appreciated the intensity that comes with loving a band that's your contemporary. It's more like loving a team than having a favorite author -- more immediate and visceral than analytical. As much as I like "Blood on the Tracks" and Philip Roth's books, they're not going to change my August.

What separated the August 5 performance from the show I attended in May was Craig Finn's intensity. The earlier show, he appeared humbled and a little overawed. The recent show, he was all confidence and bravado, much more playful and self-assured. This included a self-deprecating monologue about the lyrics to "Barfruit Blues." ("she said it's good to see you back in a bar band baby; I said it's great to see you're still in the bars.") Less a humble musician made good, more a full-throttle rock star.

Also, the thing that irks some friends of mine (Craig Finn's voice) makes a great live show. Because Finn delivers the lyrics in a barely melodic half-shout, you could never feel self-conscious shouting along.

The music is rowdy and unsubtle. Their lyrics, though, are stupendously dark and funny, like the group has chugged several pitchers of Flannery O'Connor, took a few shots of Jerry Springer, followed by a toke of VH1. Their first album, Almost Killed Me, includes a song called "Knuckles." "Knuckles" starts with the lyrics, "I've been trying to get people to call me Freddy Knuckles. People keep calling me right said Fred." Between allusions to Drop Dead Fred, Freddy Mercury, and Sunny D, the song sets a backdrop of federal agents in kevlar vests going to war with midwestern crystal meth labs. The song's main story appears to be about a serial killer.

Then, two-thirds through, you learn that the song's narrator is highly unreliable. You're not hearing the dark confession that you thought. It's something totally different. So you're left with a song about what? Is it a parody? A practical joke? A threat? Its last words -- "white crosses and wooden stakes" -- bring to mind roadside highway memorials and vampire killers.

What confounds me is that while they draw on enough Biblical and pop culture allusions to warrant an essay collection, they're trashy-sounding populists, beery and unselfconscious. I think that they're totally unhip (in a great way) and got the feeling that a lot of the Bowery Ballroom crowd consisted of midwestern ex-pats (especially Minnesotans). They're more rustbelt than Bowery anyway.

1 comment:

Flop said...

And let's not forget how he sauntered back onstage for the encore swigging from a bottle of (good) Champagne. He was definitely feelin' it.

And why do people constantly sniff about his voice. As if rock n' roll is populated with fucking Nightingales. This ain't Doktor Faust or La Boheme.