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Review: The Hold Steady Live… So Much Joy

The Hold Steady, Metro Theatre Sydney, February 4, 2009.

I’d been waiting for this concert for years really, and waiting for the exact day for months now. And it delivered in every conceivable way. The Hold Steady are the greatest band on earth right now (for me, of course), with such an amazing live sound, such a connection with the audience, and just so much joy to be there. Craig Finn sings and moves like a man possessed, like a guy playing the great second chance of rock n roll. As he says himself, he plays and sings with so much  joy and fun because he knows how priveliged he is, and how much fortune he has to be in the position he’s in. And the audience responds in kind — all kinds of people too — young, old, new fans, jaded old rock junkies. There’s something for everyone that worships at the altar of rock at a Hold Steady show — it is like a religious experience.

To set the scene for the night, I’d actually been sick for several days previously, but my attendance was never in doubt. I had decided to avoid alcohol and keep to my medications to aid recovery, but I didn’t want anything to hamper or damage my enjoyment of the show. Oddly enough, I don’t really closely know anyone else into the band, but as I soon discovered, that really didn’t matter. The Hold Steady are a group that brings people together, and I would meet several people that fell into the same situation and had taken themselves there anyway, content to meet who they met over the night. Taking my lead from the Unified Scene messageboard run by the band though, I did have a few people to meet before the show began, which was great. To Christian, Ren and others that I met over the course of the night, thanks for helping to make it memorable. I met briefly all kinds of other folks on the night too — great rock n roll stories like the father and daughter down from Brisbane just for the show, different generations brought together by their love of the band… “And the kids at the shows, will have kids of their own, their sing along songs will be our scriptures…” — just bringing Craig’s lyrics to life!

Local band The Vasco Era were the support band for the night, and while I’d heard of them, I wasn’t very familiar with them, but they were quite good. A great big sound from just a three piece, they played their hearts out while still knowing who we wanted to see, and they did well. The crowd increased in volume at the Metro Theatre, but never felt packed or squeezed, which I liked. I had managed to situate myself in the very front of the room, just a couple of people from the front, which was a brilliant position. Right in front of me was Franz Nicolay’s keyboard setup, so I knew I’d have some good views.

Cheers bring the house down as the band hits the stage. Craig is a little guy, but his enthusiasm and smile is immediately infectious. He has this brilliant technic of bringing the whole crowd in by changing his view and focusing on different individual audience members constantly, by doing different mimes of lyrics between lines and by bouncing around the stage in every way you could imagine. Galen has the classic bass players’ swagger, but likes to get up front as well. Tad is cool and concentrating with his lead guitar — he’s a great player with his all-Gibson gear, his stare reminded me of The Edge but I did see him crack a smile at least once! Bobby slams away on the drums with an intensity, but unlike most drummers he didn’t seem to crack a sweat. And Franz is possibly the most larger-than-life member of the band, with his snappy beige suit and Daliesque moustache front and left of the stage, slamming out the keyboard and piano riffs like the master he is.

They launched into Positive Jam first as the classic Hold Steady opener, and the first thing you notice about the crowd response is that nearly everyone knows every lyric to every song. The  band’s fans just worship the lyrics, and it’s a key part of the bands sound and support. I have to admit that I thought the mix was a little wrong at first, with the keyboard and Craig’s vocals drowned out in the whole band sound, but either I got used to it or the mix improved as the show went on, because it ceased to be a problem at some point. For me, part of the fun was in knowing every song within seconds, feeling the guitar, keyboard and lyrics wash over me, but often taking a minute to think, “yeah, this is ‘song x'”, despite the fact I already knew the song in every way but title.

From a few scattered tracks off the first album, through Separation Sunday, Boys and Girls in America, and the new album Stay Positive, the band put in a lengthy and memorable set. Highlights abounded, including Tad’s Gibson doubleneck on “Lord I’m Discouraged”, and the energetic sing-along of Stay Positive, Ask Her For Adderall and Chips Ahoy!. I found a set list on the fan forum after the show, and this is what they played on my night:

Positive Jam
Sequestered In Memphis
Constructive Summer
Cattle & The Creeping Things
You Can Make Him Like You
Yeah Sapphire
One For The Cutters
Don’t Let Me Explode
Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
Massive Nights
Party Pit
Cheyenne Sunrise
Lord, I’m Discouraged
Stuck Between Stations
Chips Ahoy!
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Stay Positive
Slapped Actress

First Night
Ask Her For Adderall
How A Resurrection Really Feels
Killer Parties

And the last thing I noticed was just how pleased and joyous Craig was. He performs like a man possessed anyway, and you could just see how much he enjoyed the adoration he receives from the audience. Not in an egotistical way, but an extremely  humbling way — a guy, who, let’s face it, does not have typical rock star looks, but writes songs like a master and really reaches his audience. He’s in his late 30s, spent the “typical rock star period” in his 20s not really getting anywhere with his band, but is now experiencing the real success that any musician looks for (but in a more grassroots honest way than “typical music fame” these days). As he said he said on the radio a couple of days later, he’s playing for all the desk jockeys that love rock n roll, whether they make it or not.

The Hold Steady are the best band in the world, as far as I’m concerned. And when you sit at the front of their show, with that band, and their fans, you’ll think the same thing too. It’s truly a case of the band and the fans moving together as one. As Craig said, after I’d been in another spontaneous group hug in the crowd, “You and those guys and you and you and you and you and you and me and everybody, we’re The Hold Steady”. The band truly acknowledge the fans, and the fans are there for the band. And that’s how it should be.

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