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Music

The Hold Steady - Wed. 20 October - Cabaret Mile End

Posted by Stefan / October 17, 2010

HoldSteadyShow.jpgOn Wednesday October 20, Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis's The Hold Steady are coming to Cabaret Mile End. Dedicated followers don't need to be told twice to attend, but casual fans who don't quite get the hype should not miss "America's best bar band." Whatever that moniker really means, there are few bands gathering both fan devotion and critical praise who manage to generate such enthusiasm at their shows. Their's is a scene purged of poseurs that leaves audiences free to enjoy the romance and the ribaldry of good time rock 'n roll.

The Hold Steady are known for the ease with which they combine barroom rock with compelling storytelling. While they "rock hard", they're not hard rock, and there's nothing fratty or meat-headed about their style or sound. They manage to be contemporary without losing sight of their influences, and fun without resorting to schtick. Their music draws from a rich tradition that somehow combines The Replacements with James Joyce. Incidentally, their shows are usually populated by an older crowd, perhaps one for whom attending a concert only to stand around looking bored and off-putting defies all logic and explanation. Unlike the anemic 20-somethings that haunt Sala or Casa, these 30-somethings want to move.

And then there are the lyrics. The richness of frontman Craig Finn's characters and narratives doesn't become apparent until several listens, with each subsequent spin bringing new meaning to his prose.While there's no shortage of clever word play, it's never gratuitous. His writing is purposive and tight. Look how much he crams into just a few lines with "When they say black-and-tans/they mean the kind from a can/'I ain't got time to mix it all together/I'm a very busy man, man.'" No doubt these allusions don't speak to everyone, but those who connect with Finn's devastating assessment will immediately recognize the particular breed of yuppie he portrays. Leaving aside the brilliant device of using an aside (i.e., "When they say...they mean") to introduce dialogue, the content of Finn's clarification is telling. In this particular verse he brings to life a character who clumsily stakes a claim to hipness while exposing himself as a buffoon. You can imagine yourself at the other end of a conversation in which busyness is offered as the motivation for buying a pre-mixed drink made up of two components in equal parts, and picture exactly the sort of guy who you'd be talking too.

At least in music, there is no better chronicler of the concerns and preoccupations of the modern American suburb than Finn. In contrast to that other Minneapolis-inspired author, Finn catalogues the quotidian experience of lower-middle class drunks and sinners whose choices and qualms convincingly reflect the peaks and valleys of their storied landscape. And still more unlike Franzen, rather than settle on a portrayal of these choices as drab, inevitable, or singularly depressing, he struggles to show the human desire for dignity that motivates each character's actions while reminding us of the limits they face.

It's in this quest for dignity that parallels to Springsteen are readily (and often) drawn. Too readily, perhaps, because unlike Jersey's favorite son, Finn's scope hasn't expanded to include broadstroke social analysis. Parallels can of course easily be drawn between them (not least as a result of a great cover and Finn's cheeky nod to his idol: "tramps like us...and we like tramps"), especially to Springsteen's earlier material. But where Springsteen uses familiar archetypes to address pressing questions, Finn ties inscrutable knots from his characters' private lives. Springsteen's characters are often opaque and impersonal. Their lives are subject to humiliation at the hands of powerful forces, yet we rarley learn their motives, and their private deliberations are seldom revealed to us. In contrast, Finn gives his characters names and biographies, and launders their stories through troubling annecdotes. Through unreliable narrators he employs a free indirect style that bleeds into dialogue and departs from Springsteen's trademark omniscience.

Of course, Springsteen sometimes does this too, and with great success--can you imagine how much "Born to Run" would suffer if we didn't know the narrator was singing to Wendy? Like Wendy, Finn's characters live in a closed, personal, and recognizable world. Unlike Wendy, we hear from them again. Their world is recognizable, like the best of Springsteen's writing, not because it forms an indelible part of our public patrimony, but because it resonates with our private lives. Like us the characters struggle with themselves, alcohol, drugs, sex, and religion. Their choices have consequences, and the ambivalence of both choice and consequence is thoughtfully and playfully explored ("She was a really cool kisser and she wasn't all that strict of a Christian/She was a damn good dancer but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend").

Detractors are baffled by the draw of Finn's wordy lyrics and tic-toc delivery, and the rest of the band's pounding rock riffs. It's true that most bands that garner critical praise today have either a stripped, subtle style or a more daring sound. Of course, there are as many metrics by which to judge bands as there are bands to judge. But those who conclude after a listen or two that the Hold Steady are brash and pretentious offer a thin account of the band. Yes, they use a lot of words. But on a closer inspection Finn turns out to be very economical with his language and grounded in his scope. As a result his style is compelling and affectless. Similarly, those who hear the band as derivative miss the value of contributing to a tradition, and the ultimate futility of sounding too "new". Among the band's greatest strengths is the skill with which they build on the sound and themes of their many influences. Maintaining a dialogue with their predecessors is part of what makes The Hold Steady relevant. They are original in part because they acknowledge and expand on their origins.

The show will likely be more enjoyable for those caught up in the stories of Holly and Charlemagne. A good place to start listening is either "Separation Sunday" or "Boys and Girls in America". While I enjoyed their latest album, it traded some of rawness for a polish that I imagine a band requires of a fifth album. Even if you don't have time to learn the songs, casual fans should come out and see a great rock band. And please for the love of God leave your skinny jeans and giant plastic frames at home. They're not that kind of band, and it's not that kind of show.

BONUS FUN FACT: Thanks to the last time my friends and I saw The Hold Steady in concert, the band boasts an unofficial drinking game (so unofficial, in fact, that they don't even know about it). Take one drink when Finn sings "Minneapolis", and two each time he sings "Mississippi River". Have a friend or the STM drive you home.

Photo from noeviltwin.com

Discussion

4 Comments

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