There are a lot of things people do at shows that make me want to gargle with Drano, but near the top of the list is when some “jaded vet” seeks you out to say, “Yeah, man, I remember when (the band) used to play in VFW halls/basements/some other hellhole venue.” OMG … really? You were there all those years ago?!?! You are sooooo cool!
I’m not quite ready to admit that I’ve become one of those people, but I will say that seeing The Hold Steady headline a show at one of Boston’s biggest venues made me a little wistful. In an admittedly creepy way, it kind of felt the way I imagine my mom feels when I do something adult-like.
The first time I saw The Hold Steady was when it played the AppleJam side stage at Spring Fling my freshman year. The crowd for its first set (me, my friend Dan) was so sparse that the group just played the same songs again later in the day when more people arrived. The band members forgot their drum mat, so they borrowed my red shag rug, and when the show ended, they personally lugged all their gear (including my rug) to their self-pimped ride, which was a cargo truck that they had modified with a couch and a TV that plugged into the cigarette lighter.
Their entire operation seemed so endearingly amateur. While other bands were out trying to prove to critics and themselves that they belonged in the music business, here was a group of dudes — all friends — who drove around in a crappy truck, boozing, stealing shag rugs and threatening to supplant Wilco as the best American rock band of the decade. They weren’t “visionary musicians who lived in Williamsburg;” they were just an incredible rock band from Minnesota.
Yes, their music was brilliant, and yes, their shows had more energy than a coked-up Jack Russell Terrier, but maybe my favorite part of The Hold Steady’s aesthetic was this element of amateurishness. I found it refreshing to be around musicians this laid-back and unpretentious, so apparently clueless about what they had gotten into and so nonchalant about it.
Their music fed into this image. Scan the pantheon of successful indie rock acts and you won’t find many other bands — either when the band formed in 2000 or today — that proudly wear Americana rock icons like Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements as influences. But there’s The Hold Steady, who are as proud to be Americans as they are kleptomaniacs.
While bands like Animal Collective were looking for ways to make their music hipper, weirder and less approachable, The Hold Steady was cramming together hooky guitar leads, packaging them with Craig Finn’s guilty, drug-and-beer-addled takes on the American youth experience and pouring Budweiser and Maker’s Mark over everything.
Indie rock looked to be headed into obscure realms of pretense and obliqueness, and I thought (approvingly) that The Hold Steady might be a little naïve to insist so emphatically on telling guitar-driven, red-white-and-blue stories written explicitly about people’s lives. It was like no one told them that you had to love either Sonic Youth or Joy Division to make it in indie music. More importantly, it seemed like if you told them, The Hold Steady wouldn’t care.
I know it’s lame, but when I saw their gigantic tour bus idling outside of the Orpheum this weekend, I kind of felt like my boys had grown up. The amateurs I had known and worshipped, the bros that had graciously hung out with me and my annoying freshman buddies in 2006, the drunks that had stolen my rug were officially rock stars.
Finn no longer needs that goofy yellow foam microphone cover to prevent his sandpapery voice from feeding back; they have nice mics that do that. Tad Kubler now needs a rack to accommodate his large arsenal of guitars. They drink less on stage, and the crowd is too far away to get showered with beer. They inexplicably have a gong. This isn’t a group of potentially out-of-place Minnesotans playing bar-rock — this is a famous band, and they have really made it.
And yet, thankfully, The Hold Steady still somehow seems drunk and out-of-place. They are officially accomplished, respected musicians, but their songs — older tunes like “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” newer ones like “Chips Ahoy” and brand-new ones like “Constructive Summer” — still leap off the stage like brash, bar-poetic treatises on being young and American. Finn’s voice still scathes as passionately and eloquently as it did at Spring Fling, and I still get goose bumps when, during “Stevie Nix,” he laments, “Lord, to be 17 forever…”
And though — or because — Kubler chooses which guitar to use for every song, he plays them all like Thin Lizzy is in the audience. Mischievous and triumphant, both older songs like “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Southtown Girls” and new songs like “Sequestered in Memphis” unabashedly pine for the good ole days when guitarists soloed loudly in between power chords and were proud of it. I bet Kubler somehow tricked his label into buying him the ridiculous double-necked guitar he only played once.
Fittingly, the band closed the show with “Killer Parties,” the last song from its 2004 debut, “Almost Killed Me.” No other song encapsulates The Hold Steady’s endearingly brash, potentially naïve aesthetic as this song, and I like to think that it wasn’t a coincidence that this was the encore. When Finn growled “We were young and we were in love and we just needed space/ And we heard about this place called the United States,” it was as though he was telling me, “Don’t worry, Mikey, your rug’s in the bus.”