The Hold Steady should really win some kind of prize for being the band whose members look least like they are united in a musical collective. Tonight they resemble a disparate crowd of individuals who have wandered into the venue from the street and jumped up on stage together. They are a French mime artist, an overweight extra from Seinfeld and various members of Wilco, or any other American band populated by thirty-somethings with rock in their blood and a lumber jack shirt at the ready. Regardless, Hold Steady are not about looks (try telling that to Girls Aloud) - it's what they sound like that matter, and this band sound like Springsteen is dining out on a rock-the-f**k-out pill, with some lapses into Kurt Wagner-esque thoughtfulness and with an occasional rap sensibility added on that is both slack-jawed and powered-up at the same time. Tonight they play songs from their typically ballsy new album Stay Positive as well as past favourites. As usual Craig Finn's fronting is masculine and empowering - New York drawl at the ready, he surges through songs like a hull cutting smooth water. This Brooklyn band is tailored with so many elements of classic rock that they feel like a mish-mash of past decades come good, or at least come drunk. This isn't lad rock but man rock - throw your beer in the air, leave your wife at home, grab your balls and rock.
However, far from being masculine music for simpletons, they are more than just the sum of their testosterone-fuelled parts, which is clear as they launch into a song like 'Lord I'm Discouraged'. Light on presentation but heavy on stories, you could probably write a thesis on the booze-laden tales told in each song. You have to admire them for plugging away - and it does sound like a heavy, determined plug - in this full-on feel. It seems like they signed a contract to remain committed to their code of music and story-telling and, being men of honour, backing out is the last thing they'll do. Unless you're a big fan (and God knows 90% of the crowd are) you might feel that the audience knows a secret you don't. It's still worth a visit to a gig, to hear the power, to see the older men in the audience let loose, with not a teenager in sight.
Image from prusakolep's photostream under the Creative Commons Licence.