We Departed From Our Bodies
I shook Tad Kubler’s hand last night. That might not mean much to you, but to me it was like shaking Keith Richards’s hand in 1971, or Johnny Ramone’s in 1978, or Bob Stinson’s in 1985. It wasn’t about hero worship – it’s hard to imagine a more ordinary or approachable guy. It was simply a recognition that for an instant, I was grasping the hand responsible for churning out this decade’s best, biggest rock and roll riffs.
The Hold Steady played Lawrence, Kansas, last night, at the Bottleneck, a room that holds 400 people, tops. What happened inside seemed less like a rock show than a big neighborhood barbecue forced into the basement by bad weather, with your five buddies from around the corner providing the entertainment. It just so happens that your buddies comprise the best rock and roll band on the planet.
The block party feeling was reinforced by watching the guys act as their own road crew, setting up and tuning up in plain view (imagine the Rolling Stones doing this), before disappearing for two minutes, only to reappear as conquering heroes, tearing in to “Stuck Between Stations,” the scorching lead track to Boys and Girls in America, their third album in three years, and one of the best in recent memory.
All eyes latched on to Craig Finn, the hyper-literate, hyper-kinetic, gravel-voiced singer, who fronts the band like a man who has learned to manage his seizures. In person, he made for a more impressive physical presence than the tortured elfin nerd he can seem on film. But he still twitched and flailed about, spitting hard syllables of decadence and redemption into the microphone, and then often repeating them more intimately into the faces of the fans who lined the stage, all the while gesturing wildly with his hands and moving his body to rhythms that had nothing to do with the music. He even recognized the yin and yang of the Hold Steady more explicitly in a quiet moment, noting that Boys and Girls is much like the band’s first two albums, and he gestured toward the group’s other members. “These guys play kick-ass rock and roll, and I talk my own bullshit over it.”
The set relied heavily on the new record, while sprinkling in a (very) few older faves like “The Swish” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” The band is quasi-famous for its brand of chaos, but as they ripped through a razor-sharp and drum-tight set, it became clear that the chaos is calculated. The fury of the three albums was reproduced almost note-for-note, save for some minor alterations of Finn’s phrasing and the absence of the occasional flourish of horns or strings that appear in the studio offerings. The Hold Steady draws plenty of Springsteen comparisons, and the similarities are even more apparent live. Every second of the show seemed spontaneous, but, in retrospect, it’s clear that Finn was firmly in control every moment. Even his legendary boozing seemed paced, as he nursed a couple of beers (one, after bubbling over, was used primarily to baptize the revelers in front) before taking a couple of swigs of whiskey late in the evening. The band gave the illusion of intoxication while remaining arrow straight.
The crowd treated the band like friends, from the offering of home-made cupcakes to the spontaneous eruption of confetti during the encore (an obvious reference to the album cover, and a gesture appreciated by the band; “I hope this catches on,” said an amused Kubler). And the band reciprocated. During the evening’s closer, “Killer Parties,” the stage which seemed so cramped with just the five band members, seemed to expand to welcome dozens of fans who pogoed around while the Hold Steady blasted out the evening’s final two minutes of music. As I stood right next to Finn, peering out on a perspective that wasn’t all that different from the view from the audience, his final words rang true. Pointing to the fans on the floor and those on the stage, he said “We, you, all of us, are the Hold Steady.”