Saturday, April 08, 2006

"There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right."

Whenever I post about The Hold Steady, I do it knowing that not many people who come here are that interested in the group.

I don't write about them because I'm trying to prove a point; I write about them because I can't help it.

I also know that when I write about them, I repeat every superlative in the dictionary and compare them to every band in the history of rock. I can't help that, either.

Last night was something like a rapture. It was the fourth time I've seen them, and by far the best. Craig Finn was more sober than in previous appearance. Hate to sound prudish, but it showed, in a good way. The lyrics were totally clear, lucid, and in sync with the band. I love the hard-drinking, unselfconscious bar band persona, but what I saw last night was more poised and professional. It was a show to convert the skeptics. Warsaw was crowded and the front third of the audience was berzerk. Forty-year-olds who looked like they could be your boss slam danced with NYU kids. I didn't see a single dumbass pull out a camera phone or a digital camera. It was the crowd of my dreams.

The Hold Steady came home to New York after a tour of the South and of Australia. Whatever happened in these legs, the band seemed cockier, more polished, and more energized. I may have spent my credibility by repeatedly declaring their greatness, but last night they were even greater.

Sprinkled between the high points from "Separation Sunday" and "Almost Killed Me," they tested out some songs from a planned fall release. Their new songs are, in a word, spectacular. The Book of Revelations undertones from "Separation Sunday" have been traded in for tones that are less fire and brimstone.

I'm going to talk about one song in particular. Somewhere in the ether, there is an ideal platonic Bruce Springsteen song, and somewhere else, there is an ideal platonic Billy Joel song, neither of which exist in real life. On their new album, The Hold Steady will have a song called "Stuck Between Stations" that is those songs -- the Springsteen and Billy Joel that never existed, but should. It's a story about the poet John Berryman. Any song that pays tribute to On the Road, the Golden Gophers, and a celebrated American poet is going to be intriguing; what I can't do justice is the sweep and the sweetness of the sound. You can find an mp3 of "Stuck Between Stations" played acoustically on Bows Plus Arrows. It's a nice version, but it doesn't give you a glimpse of the song's grandeur; it's a pencil sketch of a Rembrandt, but for now, it'll do. I'm giddy right now so I don't trust myself; I want to call it one of the great songs of our lifetime, but in retrospect, I'm sure that judgment will embarrass me.

Here's an interesting post about the group's use of religious themes. As loyal commentor Crunk Raconteur mentioned in response to my previous post, Boston College's alumni magazine printed an excellent article about Craig Finn. (Why can't my alumni magazine be that good?) And their new album is supposed to be out in the fall. You'll be hearing more about this from me, but I'm only doing it out of love.

Craig Finn, February 2006, from WEiR's photostream. Posting of this picture is not an endorsement of snapping pics at concerts, which is lame and rude.

Postscript: After I posted, I found the following description of the show on a myspace blog. In substance and tone, I couldn't agree more:

So: yes. Last night's Hold Steady show at Warsaw was one of the most mindblowing music experiences I've ever had. I have photos, snapped wildly over the flailing hands of everyone around me. Some of them may show the edge of the mosh pit that formed or perhaps some of the crowd-surfing. Mostly they show Craig Finn screaming, jumping up and down, dancing wildly, and generally electrified into the realm of what can only really be called rock ecstasy. There is no way to adequately describe the charisma of Craig Finn. It is awesomely beyond description. It was a joy to watch him, a joy to watch him completely feeling the joy of the audience watching him, just joy all around.

... It was great to be a part of this massive live crowd of people chanting out the lyrics to the Separation Sunday songs; it was equally great to let the raucous semi-coherence of the new material wash over me.

This is less of a write-up than an attempt to commit some of the experience to a lasting medium.


Crunk Raconteur said...

I'm glad you mentioned Stuck Between Stations. They played that song when they played DC back in Feburary, and all I have to say is that about a minute into the song, I stopped being at all irritated that they were working through a new song instead of playing one of those that I wanted to hear, and which were not played (How a Resurrection Really Feels, Sweet Payne, Hostile Mass). Just fantastic.

It sounds blasphemous to me even to say it, but the last records I can remember having as much anticipation for as the new Hold Steady record were, well, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Kid A.

CrimeNotes said...

I'm trying to keep my expectations in check. They could do an album of Mary Had a Little Lamb covers and I'd probably love it. That said, everything they've played from the new album has been great. They also did a song (Ships Ahoy, I think) that was total AC/DC.