Wednesday, November 22, 2006
This Must Be The Night
I do love rock and roll. Every inch of it (except the part where songs stretch past the four minute mark – sorry Ed). Last night the love was mutual. The Hold Steady were in town for the annual coronation of “greatest band in the world”, spurred on by almost universal critical acclaim and the buzz of the most hotly anticipated club show in recent memory. They did not disappoint.
The Hold Steady have done the impossible – taking hoary classic rock conventions and making them feel fresh again. Why pay $200 to see The Who in a hockey rink - $12 gets you up close and personal with The Hold Steady at Philadelphia's North Star Bar. They may claim the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Bad Brains and The Descendents as influences, but I hear Thin Lizzy’s guitar attack, Jim Steinman’s pseudo-rock operatic lyrics, Graham Parker’s snarled vocals, Springsteen’s fervor and even echoes of Boston (I swear on “Banging Camp” there’s a short guitar break that could have come right off Boston’s first record). So that’s where they’re coming from… why should you care?
Because The Hold Steady believe and they make you believe you too. Last night’s show should be a primer for all the mopey indie and dour alt country bands whose performance evinces nothing but clock watching and beer runs. Hurtling out of the gate with Boys And Girls in America’s opener “Stuck Between Stations”, it was apparent – this must be the night. The set list was heavy on B&GIA tracks but they even reached back (all the way to 2004!) for “The Swish” and show closer “Killer Parties”. Highlights included… every single song! But I especially liked the bass player throwing one dollar bills into the audience, Tad Kubler’s full catalogue of drunken classic rock riffs (dude’s a monster), the pogoing and shit eating grin of keyboardist Rollie Fingers (he uses the ultra cool stage name of Franz Nicolay), and the expert mechanic / drummer Bobby Drake holding it all together.
Besides Tad K.’s wall of guitar, what really separates The Hold Steady from the pack is the sung-spoke stream of consciousness lyrics, Craig Finn’s dead on character sketches of the man/child teenage decadence we’ve all struggled through. Dropping literary and pop culture references throughout places these songs in a specific time and place – right now. His spastic dancing (you almost feel sorry for him) and unbridled enthusiasm make him more compelling than he’s got any right to be. He’s got Springsteen’s absolute commitment to the moment. But unlike Bruce, guys feel they could actually snatch the girl away from Craig Finn. It makes him seem even more accessible, even more likeable. He’s early Elvis Costello, except instead of being misanthropically angry, he’s almost inhumanly upbeat.
There’s a moment in “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” where Craig Finn sings “She’s got the black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back / It said: “damn right I’ll rise again” / Yeah damn right you’ll rise again”. For me, that was last night’s most euphoric moment as I pogoed like a teenager (vertical leap – one inch) but more importantly felt like one. And isn’t that what the best rock and roll does – makes you feel like you can conquer the world. Bringing the joy back to rock and roll… one bar at a time.
Can’t wait for the college years.