Live: The Hold Steady - Newport Music Hall - 3.17.2007

Certain bands, they get so scratched into our souls. We can do whatever we want, listen to a thousand other albums which are certainly worthy of our attention, but we will always come back to that handful of bands that we can't even classify ourselves as fans of anymore because we have taken our adoration so far. It's like you take possession of the band, and start to take it personally when someone even hints at them being anything less than flawless. You get to a point where you can't even distinguish between any of the band's albums because you have absorbed them in so much, and trying to choose one as your favorite, would be like trying to pick your favorite Seinfeld episode (impossible). They are all so great in their own right that by choosing one, you feel like you cheapen the rest of the band's catalogue because you are saying that this album stands above the others, when in your heart of hearts you know that your comment was simply based on how you were feeling at that particular moment, and that all of their albums could be your favorite at any given time. Yeah, it's kinda disgusting.

Anyhow, if you haven't figured it out yet, i am quickly approaching this phase with the Hold Steady, and if i am not careful, people are going to stop visiting this site because they will think it has just turned into a Hold Steady fanboy forum which will soon be changing its name to "How A Resurrection Really Feels". No fears though. I promise i will lay off the Hold Steady posts for a while after this one. Also, there has been no word (at least as of today) that they will be releasing an album in 2007, so the top tens for the year should be bereft of Craig Finn and Company. Although, no Hold Steady album released in 2007 would break their current streak of one album each year starting in 2004, so i wouldn't count them out just yet. That alone has to be one of the greatest traits of the band though. They just love doing what they do so much, that they can't stop doing it (where "doing it" = rocking out). They are in the studio every chance that they have, which is basically every minute that they aren't touring (which basically means this band is either touring or recording at all times).

As one can imagine then, when the opportunity arose to go see "America's best bar band" live in concert, there was very little that could stop me from going (although my client at work filing their 10-K late made a pretty good attempt at it). Better yet, they would be playing on St. Patrick's Day. For those who are keeping track: Hardest partying and most unabashedly catholic band i listen to, playing in (arguably) the biggest party town in Ohio, on arguably the biggest party day of the year (which just happened to fall on a Saturday). I was stoked.

For those unfamiliar with Newport Music Hall, it is more or less a large, run-down room with a sunken floor and a bar in the back. The whole place can probably hold a couple thousand people, and is a living, breathing fire-hazard. Needless to say, seeing a concert there is a pretty "quaint" experience, and i can't imagine seeing the Hold Steady in a place any larger (or nicer). Fully equipped with a perma-sticky floor (compliments of spilled beer and sweat), and a metal hand railing that left my hands smelling like old pennies for the rest of the weekend, Newport Music Hall is the quintessential "room" that bands write about playing to on their first few albums, and i can't imagine the Hold Steady would want to play a room any larger (or nicer).

As the opening band, the Thermals, played their set of politically-charged indie punk, a predominantly male army of green-clad 20-somethings filled the room. The great thing about going to a show of this size is that you know everyone in attendance is there because they love the band(s) (or know someone who does). Basically, this translates to wealth of people in the room who are there to cut loose to a band that they are used to hearing blared from the speakers of their 93' Camry on a day-to-day basis. These people are there to enjoy a band they love and they don't care what they look like, or how they act in the process. This ability to let one's guard down is a very liberating experience, and i would argue almost necessary at a Hold Steady concert (exhibit 1: Craig Finn's wild stage presence).

When the band took the stage, the place was at a low buzz, but the room felt like it was about pop. As lead-man Craig Finn casually introduced his band to the crowd and the opening guitar licks of "Stuck Between Stations" rolled out, the place swelled like the walls of a shaken-up beer can, and about 20-seconds into the opening song from Boys and Girls In America, when the drums kick in, the room literally burst with the entire crowd simultaneously going into a frenzy. From this point on until the house lights came on, the concert was an all out assault of hard-hitting guitars and drums/pounding pianos exuding into an atmosphere thick with sweat, alcohol, and adrenaline.

It is almost ridiculous how much the Hold Steady like to just play balls-out rock and roll, and seeing them live just confirms this. I can't even compare them to anyone because im not really sure if any of their contemporaries play rock and roll this unapologetically. I mean, there are certainly people out there playing rock music these days, but i just feel like the Hold Steady are doing it in a manner that would only be comparable to those who came before them. To me, they are like a mix of Zeppelins' dirtier guitar days/partying and Bruce Springsteen's energy/storytelling/piano-rock (however, not nearly as talented as either of the aforementioned - but even the fact that im making the comparison says a lot).

As the band flew through a smattering of songs from all three of their albums (drawing most heavily from their most recent release, Boys and Girls In America), the crowd screamed almost every single word right back to Craig Finn as he spit and snarled into the microphone. Spitting and snarling is really the only accurate portrayal of what Finn does though. It would be an injustice to say his lyric delivery is "spoken-word" (as that would imply lack of emotion), but it would also be misleading to suggest that Finn is "singing". This unorthodox delivery is obviously accentuated in the live-setting which finds Finn parading around the stage, popping off at the crowd like an inspired dictator, prophesizing to a group of kids who he pities and envies all at the same time. His followers just eat every word right out of his hand though, consenting to every move Finn is making, further fueling his stage presence, and leading to additional convulsive pointing and swaggering from Finn.

From start to finish the Hold Steady is out there trying to please. The band played the customary encore (which saw the band's softer underbelly momentarily exposed with "First Night", but quickly juxtaposed by the high energy "Same Kooks", which was followed up by the epic Separation Sunday closer, "How A Resurrection Really Feels"). Additionally, Minnesota's rock and roll sweethearts came out for a second encore which treated the crowd to two classic tracks from the band's 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me (album bookends "Positive Jam" and "Killer Parties"...for those keeping track). In the process, the band pulled out all the tricks you expect from an over-the-top rock and roll band (see: guitar solos on top of double-stacked amplifiers and pulls from bottles of Jim Beam between verses), and i must say it was a memorable experience to be a part of.

While i am only one year removed from college, it feels further and further away with each passing day. I feel myself slowly slipping into an adulthood that i was probably too accepting of in the beginning, and now am desperately wishing i could retreat to a time when i would be awoke by the sound of my roomates sliding down the stairs face-first (in a sleeping bag), and when Friday's toughest decision was whether or not i would be ordering from the dollar menu or going "premium" by getting a Big Mac. For me, the Hold Steady serve as a placeholder for these times. While pretty much nobody i know partied as hard as the characters in Craig Finn's tales of middle-class midwestern America, almost everybody i know would enjoy one more night out partying with their friends, and the Hold Steady can give you flashes of that. Maybe that's why i have grown so attached to this rag-tag group of guys from the twin cities. I guess you just get old enough to know, why certain bands they get so scratched into our souls.


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