Beards, Blazers & Glasses Or The Hold Steady: The Best Band in the World?
There's a moment at every Hold Steady show when you look around to examine the crowd. And you see nothing but euphoric smiles and blurred bodies, moving in rhythm to the pulverizing crush of guitars and keyboards and hot soft lights exploding out from the stage, where a small inconspicious balding man named Craig Finn carries the audience through the closest thing that many of them will ever come to the feeling of pure rapture. These sort of things inevitably sound corny on paper and even cornier coming from an insincere caustic blogger such as this one. But every now and then a band will come along with the promise that it just very might change your life.
And we all know it won't because it never does. But sometimes, there are those moments buried in the miasma of life that emerge stark and clear and perfect, as everything is as it should be.
And those moments are commonplace at the Hold Steady's concerts, the closest thing to a Pentecoastal revival in rock music today.
Craig Finn, looking more like a law school professor than perhaps the greatest rock star in the world, rocks and flails, claps his hands maniacally, whirls across the stage guitar slung across his back, smile strapped on his face, burning bright with the pure joy that comes from getting to be the pointman for this transcendence. Tad Kubler stands to his left, looking more like Chuck Klosterman than one of the best lead guitarists in indie rock. Delivering bruising but beautiful guitar licks that pierce the smoke burning from the hot stage lights, the whiskey-chugging Kubler plays Jimmy Page by way of Bruce Springsteen, the ideal sidekick to Finn's dynamic lead.
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To the right of Finn stands bassist Galen Polivka, also leaping around the stage joyously, delivering hard stern bass licks in perfect rhythm with the band's buoyant pulse. To his right stands the keyboardist and back-up singer, Franz Nicolay, chugging wine straight from the bottle, delivering the best keyboard notes that Springsteen never wrote. And behind the drums beats the thunderous viking thump of Bobby "Ice Man" Drake.
The feeling that they create in their audiences is something that can't be described on paper. I'll just have to trot out that hoary cliche: you have to be there to understand. And those that are there do understand. The crowd seems to operate on a shared wavelength that whatever they're watching on-stage is "It." The feeling is akin to when you feel the first hot tremors of an ecstasy trip and you look out around you and for the first time in a long while everything seems alright. Everyone there is on the right side of the war and you get the feeling that you're riding the crest of a very powerful wave that you think you'll be able to ride out forever.
I suppose it's appropriate that so much of the Hold Steady's music deals with the dual themes of religious transcendence and drug and alcohol abuse because as it's been pointed out
many times before me, they often draw from the same part of the brain. And it's these twin ideas that seem to collide so viscerally in the Hold Steady's live show. The feeling that you aren't going to a show, you're going to communion, to celebrate in both the horrors and ecstasy of life and walk out of the dingy club, baptized in a way that no other band can hope to match.
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Now I'm not the only one to speak of the religious experience that is the Hold Steady's live show. Uncle Granbo wrote a devastatingly accurate description of their live show earlier this year and the Cole Slaw Blog has delivered an outstanding series of write-ups on the band.
So it isn't just me. This band is the real deal, which they proved in concert Monday night at the Troubadour.
Opening with the sublime "Stuck Between Stations" you could almost see the LA crowd trying to play it cool, stifling any and all desire to rock out to the infectious melody. But by the second song, lead album single, "Chips Ahoy," the crowd had lost any and all ability to control themselves, plunging into a whirring and roaring mob. At one point, a college girl threw her underwear on-stage at Nicolay--the band's KEYBOARDIST. I kid you not. That's how awesome this band is: the keyboardist is getting thongs thrown at him.
Other songs that were played from the band's latest classic album, Boys and Girls in America, included the tragic "Party Pit," the raucous "Some Kooks," the range-displaying "First Night," and the tongue-in-cheek "You Can Make Him Like You." But perhaps the stunner of the evening was their sublime rendition of the album's final track "Southtown Girls," that featured a particularly vicious guitar solo from Kubler and an unexpectedly beautiful harmonica solo from Nikolay. Of course, the band drew on last year's equally brilliant Separation Sunday, playing "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," "A Multitude of Casualties," a fierce version of "Cattle and the Creeping Things" and "Don't Let Me Explode," with the lyric about "Los Angeles" predictably drawing wild applause.
But the apex of the hour and half show came during the encore. The band came out to the brilliant and haunting "Positive Jam" off of Almost Killed Me, following it up with the album's second track "The Swish." But it was during "Most People are DJ's" when the energy seemed to hit even higher peaks. Finn had earlier profusely thanked the crowd for letting him perform and his words were delivered with the utmost sincerity. Despite being mind-alteringly brilliant live, the band carries a humble and heartfelt feel with them, as though they really are trying to touch each individual in the crowd.
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Indeed, a Hold Steady show feels personal in a way that no other band can match. And when the band lit into the fourth song of the encore, their finale "How A Resurrection Really Feels," it seemed that everyone already knew the answer to that statement. A dozen people rushed the stage to dance along with the band and Nicolay and Finn even dragged more and more people on-stage to celebrate this resurrection.
Walking out the doors of the Troubadour, one felt a vague sense of conversion, as though the band had enlisted 500 disciples. In answer, to the question posed in the title of this blog: are the Hold Steady the best band in the world? It's tough to say. I wouldn't argue with anyone who answered My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Spoon or whatever band Jack White is playing in this week. Hell, I wouldn't even argue if you answered the Arcade Fire or Wolf Parade. But on a cold night in the middle of October, for an hour and a half, the Hold Steady were the best band in the world. And everyone at that show would probably be hard-pressed to answer any differently.
The band is currently embarked on a nation-wide tour. You can find the dates on their Myspace page. If you go to one show this year this is the one to go to. I can't stress that enough.
In the meantime, download these two tracks from Boys and Girls in America:
The Hold Steady: "Stuck Between Stations" (right-click, save as)
The Hold Steady: "Hot Soft Light" (right-click, save as)
If you like those tracks be sure to pick up their album here