The Hold Steady

A Positive Rage

A camera shakes, a fan gurns, beer cans are held aloft. The Hold Steady, the intelligent face of middle aged hedonism, are up and roaring. It’s one lovely ageing mosh at London’s Borderline. This is the thrust of the accompanying DVD here, which captures The Hold Steady in London and in Minneapolis in 2006. The film is not so special. It is not Wilco; more a watch-once, tag-on affair where jittery cameras catch nervy journos mid-interview. The band do come across as thoroughly nice chaps, if often hovering near gentle inebriation, but we’ve all seen and forgotten many identical promo films in the past.

That’s a shame because The Hold Steady are, indeed, special. While the ageing process might not spill as profoundly from their music as in, say, Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’ or Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’, they offer something arguably even more remarkable. Not a time for reflection at all, but a time to enjoy to the full.

It is no surprise that The Hold Steady have been a favourite with the more silvered rock journalists, as so many nostalgic reference points are folded tightly within their songs. Springsteen’s ghost, for example, lurks in every corner. Traces of Husker Du, The Replacements and early REM are also apparent. They are also marvellously reminiscent of the 1978 new wave era, when thin-tied men in grey suits would perform before gormless teen girls in feather cuts of Top of the Pops. A bunch of American chaps, loving every minute of their second wind of punk. This joy of performance seems to power every song here, all snatched from a period immediately prior to their exceptional Stay Positive set of last year.

But if the DVD is a patchy, disappointing affair, the live album is ferocious; timely too, as the Hold Steady may never again find themselves performing with this degree of intimacy. These are hot, sticky, bedimmed performances with Craig Finn often breaking into his trademark live rants. It is his voice, also, that carries the Hold Steady trademark, holding the band together as their guitars collide with force and efficiency.

With the extra energy live performance provides, these sixteen songs are pushed towards their natural limits. At times it’s difficult to believe they are less than five years old — even to a latecomer Hold Steady fan such as I, they seem like old friends. ‘Stuck Between Stations’ and ‘Chips Ahoy’ (great party anthem) precede and build towards the glorious Clash/Buzzcocks rock-out of ‘Massive Nights’, complete with its lusty tales of an evening out on the razz. Audience participation here thrusts further energy into the performance, particularly evident during the key-change acceleration towards the end. Sexier, perhaps, than beery blokes with idiosyncratic tendencies have a right to be.

There is a good deal of humour involved here, as songs with titles such as ‘Your Little Hoodrat Friend’ and ‘You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)’ testify. Much of this, as well as the many literary references (Sal Paradise makes an appearance on the very first line), have remained secrets for the devoted — until now. A shame? Maybe, but such things are not meant to last. So at least you have an album here than nods back to the great days, when live albums really did expand beyond the confines of studio recordings and offer something genuinely fresh, thrilling and raw. Listening to A Positive Rage takes me back to Upper Street, Islington, circa 1978, where I would find myself en route to the Hope and Anchor to catch a slab of wild, carefree pub rock — not terribly chic, but then neither are The Hold Steady in the scheme of things. So, gloriously, they buck all manner of trend.

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