When you listen to The Hold Steady, the word “beautiful” is not a word that springs immediately to mind. The songs take you to some scary and desperate places – High School, Penetration Park, barroom bathrooms, party pits and the seedy camps on banks of the Mississippi River. The characters that inhabit the songs include skaters, drug dealers, hustlers and hoodrats. They have names like Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne. They are shady, quirky and vulnerable. They are often battered, sometimes bloody and usually wasted. Sure, there’s fun to be had, humor, irony and a massive party, but there’s little glamour in it. We see a youth culture that wants what every generation has wanted over the last half century – its own celebration of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. But the sex is desperate and the drugs turn ugly. When the smoke clears, we bear witness to the casualties, the bruised flesh and lost souls. But what we are left with is pure rock n’ roll.
Craig Finn is the voice of the Hold Steady. It might be a stretch to call him a “singer” in any traditional sense but he has a unique way of non-singing that makes him a captivating, if unlikely, front-man for a rock band. When you see The Hold Steady live, you are struck by the odd figure that he cuts. With his receding hairline, dark-rimmed glasses, and plain-looking collared button-down shirt, he hardly looks the part of a rock star. He looks like a Dad, or a computer programmer or a guy who runs the copy machine in an accounting office. And when he dances on stage with the spastic exuberance of a child, you realize that this is no poseur. Nobody would fake this. He gesticulates wildly, punctuating the vocal rhythms with his hands. It’s quirky and odd, but his energy is infectious and his geeky lack of self-consciousness is refreshing. There’s an earnestness and innocence in his delivery even as the characters he sings about have lost their own. It’s a paradox that works.
Success has come but it has been modest. Forming in Brooklyn, by way of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, in 2003, The Hold Steady became a critically acclaimed bar band and, following their first two albums, Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday, they had a solid cult following. In 2005, they appeared on the cover of The Village Voice. Their next album, Boys and Girls in America even got some radio play (notably, the anthem, “Stuck Between Stations”). But in 2006, Finn was still working in an office. Then in 2008, they released Stay Positive, their most successful album to date.
But if they had really made it big, I probably would not have been fortunate enough to see them play last Friday in Ardsley, New York before just a few hundred enthusiastic fans. That night, the band kicked off their summer tour at an unlikely venue. LIFE the Place to Be is a family event space, complete with arcade games, bowling alley and rock-climbing wall (kosher catering is available). It's more of a venue for corporate outings and Chappaqua Bar-Mitzvah parties than for sweaty, beer-soaked, bar-band rock, but I enjoyed the incongruity of the scene. The concert was part of the 6th birthday party celebration of 107.1, The Peak, the only decent radio station in Westchester County and the one that introduced me to The Hold Steady. There’s a new album coming out in May (Heaven is Whenever) and a new line-up. Their wonderfully flamboyant keyboardist, Franz Nicolay has been replaced and they’ve added an extra guitarist to lend some muscle to Tad Kubler’s killer riffs.
The show was fantastic. This band could get really big. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I wouldn’t predict it either. Finn’s vocal delivery– part nasally snarl, part rapid-fire chant - isn’t for everyone. He’s enamored with words, with literature and storytelling. Poets, John Berryman, William Butler Yeats and William Blake appear in the songs. So does Jack Kerouac. With Finn, words come flying forth rapidly without restraint or moderation as he creates captivating tales of celebration, desperation and the places in between. One of the drawbacks of the live performance is that the words get lost in the sound system, the haze of amplification and layers of guitar. It’s a common problem at rock concerts. But Finn makes up for this loss with the sheer energy and exuberance of the live performance. He has a way of making you wait on every word even when you can’t quite make them out. There's a boundless joy that seems to contradict the crises that underlie at least some of the storytelling. But within this contradiction is the very heart of rock ‘n roll. Three chords and the truth but don’t ever stop dancing.
There was something appropriate about seeing this band on Good Friday. Catholic imagery runs rampant in The Hold Steady’s songs, most notably on the Separation Sunday. At every turn, there’s sin, sacrifice, the hope of salvation and the fear of its loss. The Village Voice called Separation Sunday “the most egregiously American Catholic album since X's Under the Big Black Sun, Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, or that Jewish new waver Billy Joel's The Stranger.” After the band played “Multitude of Casualties,” a song of drugs and redemption, Finn smiled (he smiles a lot) and wished the audience “Happy Easter.” Finn may be haunted and he may be lapsed but there’s no denying that it’s in him.
There is an obvious Springsteen influence: the recurring characters, the big-sounding anthems, the Bittanesque keyboard and the energy of the live show. But Finn and his crew are also of a different generation. There’s a "Dazed and Confused" slacker sensibility which, because of the Minneapolis connection, brings to mind Paul Westerberg and the Replacements. (But also that other bard of Minnesota, Bob Dylan). In the crunching guitar riffs and power pop chords, you can hear the influence of AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and Cheap Trick. And there’s a touch of Punk in these guys as well. In “Constructive Summer,” the driving anthem that kicks off Stay Positive there’s a nod to both Iggy Pop and Joe Strummer. Finn considers the idealism of youth and what it all means now that he's facing the realities of getting older:
Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer
I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher
Getting older makes it harder to remember…we are our only saviors
We’re gonna build something, this summer
This isn’t the voice of a slacker or of a wasted youth stumbling around the party pit. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What Finn and The Hold Steady represent is nothing less than the redemptive power of rock n’ roll. Every concert is an affirmation of that faith. See them if you can. It truly is a beautiful thing.