On April 10, Indie rockers The Hold Steady played to a packed house at the Fox Theater here in Boulder. Appealing to a mix of the young and hip and the grown-up and mellow, this group of rock and roll storytellers put on quite the high energy, low tech spectacle. Whereas only the night before the Fox Theater had been aglow with BoomBox’s pink, purple, red, and blue lights, the closest thing to the Aurora Borealis that Boulder will ever see, for The Hold Steady the theater was bathed only in dull yellow photons – no fog, no lasers, no smoke and mirrors. But that’s not why people go the see The Hold Steady, they go for a whole different kind of energy, and dramatic stage lighting has very little to do with it.
For The Hold Steady, their energy is frenetic. Vocalist and guitarist Craig Finn struts madly about the stage, often holding the microphone stand, singing sometimes into the mic, and sometimes just straight out into the crowd. He yells, spits, jumps, points, and gesticulates like a puppet on speed, his nerd-boy glasses only vaguely disguising the glee and manic excitement in his eyes. Not everyone in the band is so movement-oriented, but most manage to hold on to their instruments better.
With elements of Weezer-esque everyman pop infused with post-punk angst and beefy classic rock riffs, The Hold Steady has created a sound that is both distinctly their own, and reminiscent of everyone else on the Indie scene. But the ingredient that really sets The Hold Steady apart is their dense, narrative lyrics - stories told as songs in 5000 words, and three-and-a-half minutes or less. The memory it would require to remember all those words must be tremendous, and I couldn’t help but think of the wordiness of Bob Dylan songs, even though the two sound very little alike. Conjuring up vivid images of the band’s life in their hometown (Minneapolis-St. Paul), and the band’s life on the road, you can tell that these stories mean something to the band, like journal entries digging deep into the human soul. I thinks that too is part of the appeal.
The band’s 2008 release, Stay Positive, was included in numerous lists of the year’s best rock and roll music, including Rolling Stone Magazine, the AV Club, and Entertainment Weekly, and the band is still riding high on that particular wave of fame and fortune, selling out shows around the country. The Fox was packed, and the first thing the girl at will call said to me was that I was out of luck if I didn’t already have a ticket. Actually, she just tapped the sign that said “Tonight’s show is SOLD OUT!” but its amazing how much we can say to each other without actually saying anything at all. It was yet another instance in which I wish I had arrived earlier – the slog through the crowd to the front of the room was hellish and uncomfortable, and I don’t think many people appreciated how insistent I was about getting to the front row.
The Hold Steady came on stage moments after I had situated myself in the thick of things. It was only a few minutes after that before Finn was sweaty and gross from throwing himself around the stage. I appreciate this kind of energy, but I couldn’t help but wonder what Finn was saying when he ventured out from behind the microphone – his mouth never stopped moving the entire night.
Silhouetted against a giant infinity symbol (the band will apparently be “Holding Steady” indefinitely), the most exciting moments were the strictly musical ones. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler ran up and down the neck of his guitar with 70’s style rock and roll gusto, breaking out a double-necked Gibson SG for one track, and using it to create a twinkling psychedelic, symphonic interlude before the band plunged back into the more familiar territory of distortion-centered chops and hooks. In many ways Kubler is the antithesis to Finn’s mania. Quite, centered, and sporting full-arm tattoos and a White Drugs teeshirt, Kubler exudes rock and roll apathy while Finn’s good-boy looks, plaid shirt, and happy-go-lucky smile are more kid-in-a-candy-shop than they are rockstar. And while Finn’s everyman looks highlight to bands down-home roots and lyrical honesty, Kubler’s style reflects their inner celebrity, the part that wants to be seen and heard and sell records. Then there’s Franz Nicolay on the keys, whose handlebar mustache and suit-and-tie ensemble highlight the band’s sense of humor. Probably none of this is planned (who knows?), but it is interesting to note how people’s appearances take on the look of their station in life.
The Hold Steady opened the show with “Hornets! Hornets!” – a song off their second album, Separation Sunday, released in 2005. Mostly the band stuck to songs from their latest two albums, playing almost everything off their most recent album, and only digging as deep as their first album tracks for the encore, which began with “Certain Songs” off 2004’s Almost Killed Me. Also included in the set list were “Chips Ahoy!”, “Same Kooks,” “Massive Nights,” and “Stuck Between Stations” off of 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, and “Constructive Summer,” “Sequestered in Memphis,” “Navy Sheets,” “Magazines,” and “Slapped Actress” from 2008’s Stay Positive. “Charlemagne in Sweatpants,” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” from 2005’s Separation Sunday. The fact that most of the front row fans knew every word to every song is a testament to the loyal and avid following the Hold Steady have built up over their few years on the scene. Word of the street is that the actor who plays Harry Potter in the movies is quite a fan too! also made the bill, and were among the highlights of the evening.
The whole thing was over almost as quickly as it began – when you play only three-and-a-half minute songs, it doesn’t take all that long to play twenty-something of them. This too is a part of the Hold Steady routine; a quick and intense burst of energy, then the band is gone before they outlive their welcome. The energy, however, hangs in the air for a while until all the adrenaline drains out of the room. Wide-eyed, and still jumping around, the crowd watched the stage for a few minutes until the Fox staff cleared us away and pushed us out into the street.