THE HOLD STEADY Boys And Girls In America (Vagrant/Full Time Hobby)

One of the most staggeringly musical albums I heard in 2006, The Hold Steady’s third is a glorious mash-up of Jack Kerouac (who unwittingly donated its title), The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy, like a huge, ever-unfolding jukebox that you can hold in the palm of your hand - alright, quite a bit like an iPod, then, but a particularly inventively stocked one – crammed with street poetry and pathos. It’s not a concept album, more a loose aggregation of songs that chart a sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll-soaked generation’s search for a misplaced America. Am I a fan? Can’t you tell?

“Chips Ahoy!” rightly seems to be the current default Hold Steady cover disc selection. It summarises everything the band get so right in three deliriously thrilling minutes, from the compacted storytelling (girl has uncanny knack for predicting winning horses) and gift for lyrical shading (that her success is unfulfilling is hinted at with a rare economy by the line “Some nights the painkillers make the pain even worse”) to its E Street Band-plays-Thin Lizzy sonic assault. “Chillout Tent” might be even more sublime, a wickedly amusing tale of a slacker brief encounter in a festival’s titular recuperation area (“They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs…They had the privacy of bedsheets / All the other kids were mostly in comas”) starring Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) and Elizabeth Elmore (The Reputation). For me, the album’s most awesome achievement is “First Night”, which continues the adventures of regular Hold Steady characters Charlemagne, Gideon and Holly, too broken to beat the nostalgia comedown.

That the remainder of “Boys And Girls In America” doesn’t quite scale these Olympian heights is hardly a criticism. Equally, its thick, foggy production is scarcely hi-fi, but as a careful reconstruction of the faux-Spector murk of 70s Springsteen it’s entirely appropriate to the material. If you enjoy guitars and stories and melody and noise, The Hold Steady might well be your next new favourite band.

THE HOLD STEADY / THE HOT MELTS The Point, Cardiff 25 August 2007

“The Hot Fucking Melts”, as the lead singer/guitarist/sunglasses sporter continually refers to them, are a Liverpool quartet whom I initially mark down for sounding as if the release of “Is This It” was their year zero and looking like a charity shop Strokes. But such criticisms are artfully deflected as soon as I notice that their drummer is sporting a Strokes t-shirt, and from that moment on I’m entirely on their side. They major in short, punchy songs delivered without an ounce of flab, and for 15 minutes they play like they’re famous. They should be.

The game gets ratcheted up even further during the lull between sets as the PA broadcasts classic Americana from., um, The Band, Neil Young, uh, Rod Stewart, Traffic and Led Zeppelin. Yet from the first The Hold Steady are more than a match for expectations; on what we learn is their first visit to Wales the Minneapolis quintet are greeted as homecoming heroes, and with good reason. If Bruce Springsteen was ever the future of rock and roll then his new favourite buddies are its living, breathing, bruising, bleeding, throbbing present. Lead singer/guitarist Craig Finn’s performance, a mix of the young Boss and the early, funny Woody Allen, is worth the ticket price on its own, repeating lyrics between lines off-mic, his hand gestures providing a running commentary on the songs. Only keyboardist Franz Nicolay comes close to stealing his limelight, perhaps because, in his hat, moustache and suit, he looks like a wiseguy who’s wandered in from the set of a Scorsese film.

Perhaps because it’s the only one of their three albums with which I can claim complete familiarity, the songs from last year’s astonishing “Boys And Girls In America” stood out for me; by my reckoning the only one of its 11 tracks to be omitted from the setlist was the glorious “Chillout Tent” - its storyline really needs a female vocalist. “Chips Ahoy!”, introduced with the observation “There’s lots of songs about a boy and a girl, there’s not many songs about a boy, a girl and a horse”, practically flattens The Point; all acoustic save for some keyboard-derived chimes, “Citrus” is a marvel of alcohol-pickled delicacy; “First Night” is far, far beyond brilliant. Even the songs I don’t recognise are enjoyable for their multi-part near-prog street opera – why settle for just one tune in a song when you can crowbar three in there? – with torrents of narrative ladled generously on top.

I don’t recall attending a sweatier, more crowdsurfier gig than this before – as guitarist Tad Kubler gently warns at one point, “Take care of each other out there”. It seems like this special atmosphere reaches – or, more probably, drips on and soaks into – the stage as well, as during the encore Finn says “There seems to have been a huge omission in our touring schedule. This is the first time we’ve been to Wales. We’ll be back. You guys are fucking awesome”. Well, shucks; I think the feeling was pretty much mutual.

THE HOLD STEADY Separation Sunday (Full Time Hobby)

Stepping backwards through The Hold Steady’s discography, 2005’s “Separation Sunday” is a rougher, looser, more sprawling proposition than the following year’s breakthrough “Boys And Girls In America”. Stretching the plotted street opera of early Springsteen to an album’s length, it chops up sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, literature, parties and religion and sifts the resulting mess through the unreliable memories of characters Charlemagne, Gideon and Holly. Conceptually it’s huge, almost too much for one CD to hold (steady). Practically every track is overrun with multiple tunes, with Craig Finn frequently yelling out more syllables than the music can take – a line like “Youth services always finds a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little messed up teenage life” is not atypical, coincidentally encapsulating a fair few of the album’s main concerns. It seems fitting that the booklet presents the lyrics as typewritten pages covered in scrawled corrections, like a script in the constant grip of revision.

It’s hard to pick “Separation Sunday” apart: highlighting individual tracks seems as pointless as reviewing a novel chapter by chapter. The characters, locations, scenes and motifs blur and bleed together: it’s as much Chuck Palahniuk and Martin Scorsese as it is The Faces and The Replacements. Maybe it’s not the album-length “Jungleland” of its own imagination, and some listeners might yearn for the focus and concision of “Boys And Girls In America”. Nevertheless, few albums splurge and wallow in their creators’ creativity with such grinning glee as this one.



Tonight, Jesse Malin and his newly regularised backing band are all kinds of awesome. The last time I saw him, in 2004, the undoubted excellence of his punk-powered full-throttle performance was overshadowed by the abiding memory of the strangeness of his stage voice, an almost parodically squeaky, mewling instrument. There's little evidence of it tonight, just the occasional hint on some of the oldest songs played, suggesting that maybe he's writing around it. Another thing apparent that I rarely give consideration to, for support acts or headliners, is the effort expended upon unusually sympathetic and energetic lighting, distracting slightly from the detrimental effects of a sound mix that's all attack but little definition, the music delivering crushing blows but all but the odd phrase of the lyrics rendered indecipherable. The Hold Steady's set is similarly impeded, so at least we can safely say the engineers aren't holding back to make the headliners look good, not that they don't need all the help they could get with Malin and band's superb performance snapping at their heels.


"Hotel Columbia" is very fine, "Wendy" and "Brooklyn" closer to stunning and the new(er) material sounds as though it'll blossom given the opportunity, which, as I'm seeing him again next month, I'm more than happy to provide. All this and The Replacements' "Bastards Of Young" sensitively recast as a piano ballad and some right(-on) comments about the glory of live music and physical media compared with the downloaded substitute, something stirringly backed up when he throws a couple of his LPs (as in the vinyl kind) into the crowd at the end of the set. After 35 minutes of thoroughbred New York rock 'n' roll, I could've left at that point and still felt I'd got my ticket's worth.


For all their greatness, The Hold Steady aren't quite celebrated for quick-cutting narrative economy. The last time I saw them, touring in the wake of their fabulous 2006 breakthrough "Boys And Girls In America", I suspected that the somewhat swampy feel of some of their set was due to unfamiliarity with the back catalogue. Well, having had several years to acclimatise to it, that swampy feeling hasn't gone away. There's something about the interconnected tales of killer parties and their resultant physical, mental and emotional fallout, a tangled web of characters and false endings, that perhaps you have to be a greater aficionado of the band than I am to appreciate fully. The band's total commitment to rock 'n' roll cannot be faulted for a second, especially that of livewire frontman Craig Finn, who spends more time gesticulating his way through the lyrics than playing guitar. However, as soon as he mentions those camps down by the Mississippi river my mind starts to wander, the tightly-knitted musical and lyrical conceptual continuity of the material from second album "Separation Sunday" being, for me, its undoing.


There are highlights, of course. Of the many songs played from faintly disappointing new album "Heaven Is Whenever", "We Can Get Together"  has definite potential - sounding different to their default-mode punk-filtered mid-70s Springsteen chug, it hymns the act of playing records in company, something I think we can all agree on the importance of - with "Hurricane J" and "The Sweet Part Of The City" (key text "We were bored so we started a band/We'd like to play for you") taking honourable silver and bronze. From "Boys And Girls In America" they play "Stuck Between Stations", "Chips Ahoy!", "Massive Nights" and "Southtown Girls", varying in effectiveness from acceptable to excellent, and Jesse joins them for a fine "You Can Make Him Like You". The night's highlight - and what I would be surprised, and truly blessed, if it didn't turn out to be the pinnacle of my concertgoing year, arriving just at the time I really needed to be reminded why I liked The Hold Steady in the first place, at the beginning of the encore - is an astonishing reading of "Last Night", an elegiac ballad that's also ripped to the tits on drink, drugs and religion, a stunning few minutes that's everything the rest of their set isn't.


THE HOLD STEADY Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant/Rough Trade) 

Five albums in, The Hold Steady’s perennial themes of killer parties and redemption through rock and roll are beginning to feel less hardy. Compare and contrast this from opener “The Sweet Part Of The City” – “We were bored so we started a band” – with these lines from “Positive Jam”, the first track on the band’s 2003 debut “Almost Killed Me” – “I got bored when I didn’t have a band/So I started a band”. There’s a fine line between being endearingly self-referential and being trapped in some kinda Groundhog Day nightmare, and “Heaven Is Whenever” might have the listener wondering whether the characters in The Hold Steady’s songs are ever going to grow up, or whether they’ll spend eternity locked in a perpetual party.

Persevere, though, and the album grows a little, though nowhere near as much as this year’s initially disappointing Drive-By Truckers album, “The Big To-Do”, did. The highlight here is “We Can Get Together”, a sweet-natured eulogy that suggests “Heaven is whenever we can get together/Sit down on your floor and listen to your records”. With its harmonies and heft “Hurricane J” is almost as good, its chorus line “I don’t want you to settle/I want you to grow” suggesting that at least somebody wants someone to fight their way out of the encroaching lifestyle cul-de-sac. On the other hand, “A Slight Discomfort” is a sludgy seven-minute trudge that typifies the sense of exhaustion that permeates much of the album. Certainly, nothing here begins even to approach The Hold Steady’s finest moment, “First Night”, from 2006’s “Boys And Girls In America”, both the reason I still care about this band and the reason “Heaven Is Whenever” is such a disappointment.

It doesn’t help that the album sounds pretty poor on vinyl. A confused muddle of noise, with lisping, phasey high frequencies, it’s almost as if it was cut from low-bitrate MP3 files rather than something like a master tape.

THE HOLD STEADY / WINTERSLEEP The Ritz, Manchester 13 February 2011


Wintersleep are from Halifax, Nova Scotia, so with their twisty-turny post-Radiohead progginess draped over alt.rock guitar noise it’s tempting to describe them as the missing link between Arcade Fire and Rush, not that that’s a bad thing of course. Material introduced as being from their new album seems to have shed some of the indulgence, but everything they play is deservedly well received.


As are the Steady, generating even denser excitement in a venue usefully smaller than the loathsome Academy 2 they played last year. A perma-grinning Craig Finn does his usual trick of pouring himself into the songs, acting out the lyrics from his hair to his fingertips, jabbering lines off-mic and generally underlining his mid-set comment that being in The Hold Steady is the best job he’s ever had. The setlist draws satisfyingly heavily from the band’s mid-period peak albums “Separation Sunday” and “Boys And Girls In America”, Finn drawing a web of conceptual continuity between “The Weekenders” and “Chips Ahoy!” by revealing between the two that “This next song is about the exact same people”. “Stuck Between Stations” is rendered largely bassless due to technical difficulties, not that it stops the rock for a second. Of more concern is that the band’s current keyboardist-less lineup saps at least some of the majesty from their finest moment, “First Night”, leaving it merely great instead of transcendent.


Although their commitment can’t be faulted, The Hold Steady’s live performance still founders on their traditional (rock) problems. Having to yell over the noise and roar of the band renders much of Finn’s urban poetry unintelligible, with only the occasional key phrase coming through clearly. It might not matter with other bands, but it undermines much of the effort put into his remarkable lyrics.