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LIVE REPORT: The Hold Steady
Laurie Tuffrey , October 22nd, 2014 16:08

As the Brooklynites come to the end of their second UK tour this year after recent LP Teeth Dreams, Laurie Tuffrey watches a set made up of all massive highs (and no crushing lows) at Koko in London

Tonight is triumphant, by all counts. The Hold Steady are the perpetual cult band, and with an audience able to recite their lyrics like a litany crushed nicely into Koko, they hurtle through what's now an undeniably powerful collection of songs. Evergreen choices from their 2006 high watermark Boys And Girls In America form the spine and get added to by some fine cuts from this year's Teeth Dreams, the best of 2010's Heaven Is Whenever and some crowd-slaying catalogue material, 'Your Little Hoodrat Friend' and 'Ask Her For Adderall' standing out.

The band get lumped in with those bands that peddle major-key Springsteen-heartland chuggers, "heritage rock" that's not old enough to be heritage, but that does them a massively misguided disservice. Finn's lyrics have always been the core substance of the band, and even if they haven't reached the kind of startling, razor-like brilliance that he reached on Boys And Girls... for a while now, it's when the band play live that this luminescent talent gets its best platform.

Finn's a masterful storyteller, drawing on a Minnesotan mythos that spans the band's catalogue and gets dredged up almost straight from the off tonight, the first lines of 'I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You' namechecking his fictive Cityscape Skins thug gang, regrouping under some new ways of prison-acquired thought: "I guess Shepard came out of St. Cloud with a little ideology/ Some new way of thinking, man".

But it'd be wrongheaded to say that the crowd are here mainly for Finn's stories. It's their innards, their constituent parts - the quick humour and self-coined aphorisms, the poetry found in chemical names and street signs - that they're after, and it's those that get shouted back at the man on stage.

On one hand, there's something both revelatory and damning in the moment the crowd sing his lines distilling dispassionate youth in 'Stuck Between Stations': "Crushing one another with colossal expectations/ Dependent, undisciplined and sleeping late". Finn's songs - 'Ask Her For Adderall', 'Rock Problems', 'Citrus' - feature narrators with a knack in holding up mirrors to themselves and their shortcomings, and to whom that line would no doubt apply at one time or another.

But ultimately any sense of defeatist negativity gets solidly dispelled - and solid is the key word - by songs such as 'Constructive Summer' and an encore-placed 'Killer Parties'. Without getting overly sentimental, though that maybe wouldn't be out of keeping here, the former's an anthem for self-empowerment, fortified by defiance of mundanity and pivoting on the grasping hold of specific moments in time - "We are our only saviours/ We're gonna build something this summer", as Finn says - and one where the crowd prove the band's own lyrics, "Our psalms are sing-along songs". The latter, meanwhile, is the perfect vehicle for two of Finn's strongest suits, sincerity and sheer energy. The band suspend the end of 'Massive Nights' - "The chaperone comes out..." - Finn wrings out the pause for as long as he can- "... and he's like, 'Yeah, I'm pretty sure we partied", and the song kicks in. It's only now, when he moves to the stage edge and the crowd, lit up by the house lights, heave with gratitude, that he's stopped jerking around, alternating between mouthing the lyrics off-mic and throwing his hands to his head in some joyful bout of neurosis, that you realise how unrelenting his drive to make this the best gig you'll see is. There's something brilliant, too, about the moment when Finn shouts, "There is so much joy!" before the song proper begins; it gets repeated at almost every show, and some may wince at its unmediated earnestness, but Finn means it with entire conviction, and throws himself forward when delivering the line, as if the PA system could do with an extra helping hand.

This, really, is what The Hold Steady are about. Emerging out of the pavement cracks of Finn's beer-stained and shit-strewn Minneapolis–Saint Paul is an unshakeable resilience, an unflinching belief in the power of remaining clear-eyed and stridently optimistic. It's not a blind optimism - these aren't exactly songs of glory and success; there are only fleeting, if any, moments of such - but a stand against the bitter day-to-day, an affront to apathy and withdrawal and bullshit cynicism. There's not much more you can really ask of a band than that.

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