Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Hold Steady's Constructive Strummer

The buzzsaw guitar that opens “Constructive Summer”, as well as the Hold Steady’s messy and glorious new cd, Stay Positive, is a call to arms for curly indie kids, spastic punk rockers and and graying classic rockers – here’s a band to bridge the gaps and a seven nation army for all camps to hail as the latest saviors of rock and roll.

After three increasingly magnificent records (the spoken word art punk of Almost Killed Me, the epic Separation Sunday, the more structured and polished but no less amazing devastation of Boys And Girls in America), it only takes six seconds to realize that Stay Positive continues The Hold Steady’s incredible hot streak.

“Constructive Summer” opening lyrics:

“Me and my friends are like
The drums on Lust for Life
We pound it out on floor toms
Our psalms are sing-along songs”

It’s the most succinct summation of The Hold Steady circa 2008… the inclusiveness (”me and my friends”), the rock and roll definition ("the drums on Lust for Life”), the shared celebration (“we pound it on floor toms”) and the mass celebration that takes place during their beer stoked, sweat soaked shows (“our psalms are sing along songs”). And at this point we’re still only 26 seconds into not only song of the summer, but the song of the year, maybe the song of the last five years.

Later in the song we get references to obscure punk bands (“doublewhiskeycokenoice ”) and not-so-obscure punk bands (“Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer”) as well as an exhortation to be all you can be (“Let this be my annual reminder / That we can all be something bigger”). There’s also drinking, small town ennui, more drinking, the Word of forgiveness, tribute to fallen comrades, self-empowerment and of course, more drinking. And all this in less than three minutes!

All the familiar topics are in place in this record – damaged women looking for salvation, addictions in need of salvation, small town romance dance as sin’s salvation, escape from Catholic salvation and ultimately, rock and roll as our ultimate, if temporal, salvation. Stay Positive is The Hold Steady’s Pulp Fiction as it time shifts and tackles the issue of salvation and redemption while exposing the ugliness of daily addiction and the mundane reporting on a multitude of casualties – some who seek and find a way out, but most who stay and live imperfect lives intermittently saved by rock and roll.

The virgin vampires of “Navy Sheets (“Now we’re trying to find a DNA match”) show up earlier as the holed up kids in “Sequestered in Memphis” and later we find one of them strung out in “Lord I’m Discouraged”. And then it sounds like the emotionally distant crush casualty from Boys and Girls in America’s “Chips Ahoy” shows up just about everywhere. For a real in-depth look at what makes this album great, read this, my favorite Stay Positive review to date.
But back to "Constructive Summer" (and by the way, name a better song released this year and I'll buy you beer all night long) - that opening Clash '77 killer Kubler blast that's quickly wedded with the Jerry Lee Lewis piano pounding is the exact moment where The Hold Steady fuses their punk rock roots with their ever-widening arena rock ambition. The song is capped off by a moving salute to the venerated "saint" Joe Strummer, who espoused the DIY ethic and rock and roll passion that The Hold Steady are using to build something big this summer.

Constructive Summer (Non-COMM version)
The Clash - White Riot
Joe Strummer - Coma Girl

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Blindsided by the Flight

I am, by nature, a practical man, not prone to impulse or extravagance. And so when my friend T.J. recently offered that he had an extra ticket for the Bruce Springsteen show on Sunday, July 27 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, I begged off, reasoning that I had exploited enough of my wife’s good will on my three-day excursion to Philadelphia a few weeks back.

Exploited, but apparently not exhausted, because when I recounted the story a day later, she said “Springsteen? In New Jersey? With T.J.? You said ‘NO’?”, incredulous that I had passed on the chance to see Him in the Holy Land on what may be the last big go-round for the E Street Band.

Given the green light, I made plans for a surgical strike on the Garden State. Leave Kansas City early Sunday, change planes in Minneapolis (you can’t go direct to anywhere from Kansas City; if you needed to go to Minneapolis, they’d route you through Anchorage), arrive at LaGuardia at 1:59 p.m., show at 7:30. Even if my flight was a couple of hours late, we’d have time to spare! Baby, we were born to run!

The alarm clanged at 5:15 a.m., and I sprang out of bed, caught a quick shower, hit the road and parked at the terminal at 6:02. Got through the gate, grabbed a cup of coffee, and we were airborne an hour later. We touched down in Minnesota (there really are 10,000 lakes; I counted them on the way in) a few minutes before our scheduled 8:26 arrival. Straight out of the jetway, I checked the screen with the day’s departures, found my flight to New York, and saw the two little words that lift the spirits of all travelers. “In Mpls,” I texted T.J., “On time to LAG.” Following LaGuardia info online, he shot back “You’re actually a little early.” This couldn’t be going any better! We’ll have time to drop my stuff off at the house and then stop in at the diner where Tony Soprano stopped believin’ before heading to the Meadowlands. No retreat, baby, no surrender!

A half-full Northwest Airlines flight leaves the gate on schedule, and we hit cruising altitude. I have a row to myself and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in my hands. I don’t even care that they have Diet Pepsi and not Diet Coke on this plane. I believe in a promised land!

We’re well into a flawless flight, somewhere over Pennsylvania, when the captain comes on and says there’s some bad weather in New York and we may have to hold for a while. No problem, we’ll be a few minutes late. Oh-oh-oh thunder road, oh thunder road, oh thunder road! Then he says “if we hold too long we may have to make an emergency landing to pick up some fuel before heading on in to New York.” Oh. That sounds sort of ominous. Still, suppose we’re even three hours late. We skip the diner, head straight to the stadium, and proceed to rock out with the coolest AARP-eligible band on the planet. Let’s prove it all night!

Then, twenty minutes later, the blow I never saw coming. “Folks, it seems that the weather is such that the entire eastern seaboard is closed for business. The tower has advised us to turn around and head back to Minneapolis.” To . . . where? What? Minneapolis? You sure it wasn’t Annapolis? Really? Oh.

I did the math in my head. I knew. What can I do, what can I say, I don’t wanna fade away.

Two hours later, we hit the runway. I made the requisite vaguely despondent phone calls, and booked a flight that was scheduled to touch down in Kansas City just as Bruce hit the stage in New Jersey.

I called Trip, who is coming out here to see the Boss with me on August 24. “At least we’ll have the show in Kansas City,” he says. “Yeah,” I reply, “it better be one ******** great show.” Sometimes I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ting-ing in The Rain

Bounc-ting on the stage like the bleach blonde spawn of Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde and Nancy Sinatra (or Nina Persson for you hipsters), Ting Ting lead tinger Katie White launched a slap-happy new wave dance party that wouldn’t let up at last night’s sold out Philadelphia show. The Ting Tings are a British role reversed White Stripes with the emphasis on the groove rather than the riff.

Opening with the piano driven opening of insistent percolator "We Walk", it was clear there would be no tentative stage theatrics from this bubbly, beat crazy duo. They raced through 8 of 10 songs from their debut disc in a whirlwhind 35 minute set. Highlights included ipod star maker "Shut Up And Let Me Go" (a kiss off/demand for their former record label) which sounds like a great lost Blondie classic, the edgy lost girl lament "That's Not My Name" and the electro whimsy of lover's plea "Traffic Light" ("our slow one" according to White) ditches the big beat for a 60's styled soft pop treatment. The show's sole encore was a cacaphonous, eight minute rave-up of title track "We Started Nothing" which showed the couple could cause quite a ruckus.

The Ting Tings won't save rock and roll, and my guess is their album will soon be consigned to the summer of '08 obscurity pile, but they were able to electrify a room on a steamy, stormy July night at Philadelphia's best venue. (And can we give it up one time for Johnny Brenda's... I'd see just about anybody there).

The Tings Tings - Shut Up And Let Me Go

The Ting Tings - Traffic Light

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

E. Rutherford Shuffle


If you’re reading, and we suspect you are, I have a request.  Being neither in my early fifties nor from the eastern seaboard, I’ve not seen you play the dozens upon dozens of times that my buddy Trip has.  But I have seen you play in three different cities (Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago), and I’m about to make it four, as I head to the Garden State for this Sunday’s show at Giants Stadium.  That will mark the longest trip I’ve ever made for the express purpose of seeing a rock and roll show.  While you’re understandably flattered, it was an easy call to make, seeing you, on your home turf, on perhaps the last big go-round with the band, with my friend T.J.  So really, don’t mention it. 

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve perused the internet for the set lists of the shows I’ve attended, and you’ve managed not to play some of my favorites on the occasions I’ve seen you.  So, if you can find it in your heart to play something from the following list, I’d be grateful.

1. Rosalita

2. Jungleland

3. Lost in the Flood

4. Tunnel of Love

5. Spirit in the Night

6. It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City

7. Detroit Medley

8. Kitty’s Back

9. The Fever

10. E Street Shuffle 

And if you can’t get to any of these on Sunday, that’s cool.  You can make it up to me on August 24 in Kansas City.

Friday, July 18, 2008

50 (+ 1)

Everything I wrote a year ago remains true, except that he's 51 now and we actually have met. He's a terrific man, decent and funny and generous, with a lust for life and music that astounds and inspires me. So happy birthday, partner. Here's two more for the list:

Jeremy Fisher - Scar that Never Heals

Felice Brothers - Frankie's Gun

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

. . . Yeah, But He's My Nerd

Trip gets quoted in Dan DeLuca's Philly Inquirer story about the demise of The Spectrum.

Trip McClatchy, 50, of Havertown, who blogs about music at, saw James Taylor there in 1972, the first of McClatchy's 76 Spectrum shows. (He has them on an Excel spreadsheet.) He ranks the Faces with Rod Stewart in 1973 second to Springsteen. But he also remembers seeing Slade, Jo Jo Gunne and Brownsville Station in 1974, and taking his younger brother Kevin to see Kansas in 1977, only to have him sleep through the show except for "Carry On Wayward Son."

That's seventy-six shows at the Spectrum alone. I'm told that the spreadsheet - which lists every show the man has ever seen - currently has 1,404 entries, with Ezra Furman & The Harpoons and The Redwalls being the most recent addition.

The dude makes my obsessions seem like minor habits.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fleet Foxes Sell Out?

Shuffling aimlessly on stage as they prepared for last night’s jammed, sweltering show at Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church did not prepare the audience for the exacting precision of the angelic, often four-part harmonies that were the clear stars of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes magical, mystical, suffocating (did I mention it was sweltering) campfire chorale hoedown.

The band seems to draw from a wellspring of influences, from Brother era Beach Boys to a less reverbed Jim James, from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Crosby by himself (I believe you, Feeney), from traditional English folk to barbershop quartets, from the current freak folks to the psych pop of The Zombies and a huge helping of southern California soft rock (Bread, America, Mamas and Papas). Apparently not an influence – Band of Horses.

Starting the show with the gorgeous opening a capella moments of the stunner “Sun Giant” (the title track of their debut EP) and it’s first line “What a life I lead in the summer”, it was a definite signal that Sub Pop’s latest uber-buzz band was going to treat the assembled punk rockers, pasty faced wallflowers and scattered geezers to an unusual show, and the church’s hot-house basement was the perfect setting.

Clearly the band was thrilled with the rapturous reception and frequently gave thanks to the crowd, occasionally tossing out bottles of water from the stage or just dousing the kids up front with the same holy water. They asked that one of the teetering ceiling fans be turned off and were quickly hooted down by the delirious mass who decided decapitation by ceiling fan was preferable to the room temperature edging up by even one degree. (Seriously, it was hot.)

The highlights were many – including the “hard-to-believe-they-pulled-it-off-live” voices in the round of the haunting, heart stopping “White Winter Hymnal”, the final encore of the grief stricken confessional of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”, the jangly, Paul McCartney cribbing (“Whoa my love, Whoa my love, Whoa my love, Whoa…”) of “English House” and a solo turn by lead singer on “Oliver James” that was preceded by an unlikely yet spellbinding cover of “Crayon Angels” by 70’s tragic folkie Judee Sill. These guys know their shit.

So did the Fleet Foxes sell out? Prompted by a fan’s request that pleaded “Don’t ever, ever sell out”, singer Pecknold engaged the interloper in a short dialogue. When he asked the young cub what selling out was, the response was “selling thousands and thousands of records”. Pecknold parried that that was “selling, not selling out… so define selling out”. The fan quickly shot back “Don’t be Band of Horses!”. Pecknold just as quickly quipped “Don’t worry, we won’t”.

So there it is – sold out, but not sell outs. And most likely owners of the most talked about, most startling, most accomplished debut of 2008.

Fleet Foxes - Oliver James mp3

Fleet Foxes - Sun Giant mp3

Positive Reviews

The reviews are starting to come in for The Hold Steady's fourth album, Stay Positive, already out digitally and due in stores next week. The consensus: it's good, really good.

My review is in the new issue of The Providence Phoenix (thanks, Mr. Editor!). Some reputable folks have also weighed in, like the Village Voice, Uncut, Rolling Stone and MTV, among others.

What do you think of the record? Leave us a comment.

Monday, July 07, 2008

In Philadelphia, Where I Met Satan

Left to right: Craig, Satan, me, Kurt, Chip, Mike

A few weeks ago, I snuck into Philadelphia under cover of darkness as part of a rolling series of surprises for my longtime friend Kurt on his fortieth birthday, a 72-hour operation orchestrated by Kurt’s wife Claire with a shocking, almost militaristic, level of precision, foresight and secrecy.

The travels also allowed Trip and me to hold some long-overdue and high-level Teenage Kicks editorial board meetings, fueled by hops, malt and rock and roll. The consensus coming out of those meetings: We’ve got to ramp this thing up.

Thursday night’s main attraction was Rilo Kiley at the Electric Factory, which followed burgers and beers at North Third. Philly, let me say this: You rule the beer world. Great brews can be found in any bar on any corner. I swear this is true: On Friday, I threw a rock into a tree, and a perfectly-poured Hoegaarden fell into my hand, with lovingly-sliced lemon floating on top.

Kurt and Claire and I were joined for the evening by Trip and his bride Cathy, making a rare rock and roll show appearance, and our friends Mary and Kevin, up from Baltimore for the night. The epic conversation and panoply of on-tap offerings prevented us from catching the first two acts on the bill, but Jenny Lewis and her man-slaves put on a shimmering show that looked something like this:

The next day featured more beer and rock and roll, as we caught Langhorne Slim’s noontime set at World CafĂ© Live (thanks to XPN’s Deb Ashmore and the many friendly friends who treated me like a brother on our visit to the station). Slim and his War Eagles put on a high-energy hootenanny at the bargain-basement price of free.

Later that afternoon, Kurt and I (by now joined by Chip, just in from Ann Arbor) were across town, about to enter Standard Tap, when we encountered Slim and a lovely companion on the street. Though happy to be recognized, Slim was a tad crestfallen when we awkwardly confessed that we couldn’t make it to that night’s show (though I have since bought your disc, Slim; I hope that’s sufficient consolation).

The weekend’s entertainment high point, however, indisputably happened on Saturday night. With the Phillies out of town, we found our sporting fix with the Philly Roller Girls, enjoying a roller derby double-header pitting the Broad Street Butchers vs. the Dutchland Rollers and the Heavy Metal Hookers vs. the Philthy Britches. Sitting just inches from the action in our VIP seats, it quickly became clear that the competition was for real. Featuring delightful young women with names like Robin Drugstores, Felony Griffith and Heavy Flo, it was all-out serious stuff that often ended up in our laps after collisions in the corners shot bodies off the track like human cannonballs. Here’s a big salute to Mo Pain, the Michael Jordan of Philly women’s roller derby. The girl can skate.

In between bouts, we were treated to the dulcet tones of La Resistance, a local metal band fronted by the heretofore unknown child of Joey Ramone and Sarah Silverman. But the band’s purest genius rested in their physical formation, with co-lead guitarists, one left-handed and one right-handed, flanking the stage, guitars pointing outward, manifesting the band as nothing less than the devil’s horns writ large.

And speaking of Satan, she (yes, she) was there supporting her sisters in the Heavy Metal Hookers. More charming that you’d imagine, she graciously posed for pictures.