Folks don’t show up to a Hold Steady show looking for melody or crooning. They want sweat and shouting and all sorts of catharsis. That’s what they got at the Brooklyn-based quintet’s Monday show at the 9:30 Club.
Frontman Craig Finn doesn’t sing so much as rant, like an early Bruce Springsteen or Graham Parker. Combine his nerdy looks with his vocal delivery, and he comes off like an office boss yelling at an underperforming sales team. Finn’s stage moves, which most of the time combine lots of manic arm waving and foot shuffles (a melding of Johnny Rotten and Pee Wee Herman’s signature dances), added to the tension. Finn would occasionally release all the angst by going on exhilarating hopping fits. When the crowd joined in on the joyous hopping, as happened during the driving shout-along “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” fans on the floor up front got banged around quite a bit. But those bangers were living out the words of the song’s nihilistic protagonist: “It hurts, but it’s worth it.”
The Hold Steady isn’t big on musical dynamics. The band dropped its keyboardist a few years ago and added a guitarist. Bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake typically worked up a 4/4 groove and waited for guitarists Steve Selvidge and Tad Kubler to add the power chords for the very knowing fans to pump their fists to.
The additional six-strings came in handiest on “Rock Problems” and “Multitude of Casualties,” as Selvidge and Kubler stopped their down-strokes and quick-picked twin leads a la Skynyrd or the Allmans.
The keep-it-simple musical template kept the focus on Finn. He has probably tired of the Springsteen comparisons foisted on him from the Hold Steady’s earliest days, but that influence remains undeniable. Finn makes frequent lyrical references to his home turf (his boyhood home of Minneapolis subs for Springsteen’s shore), has sad and colorful characters that can reappear in different songs and loves throwing religion into the mix. On “Multitude of Casualties,” a wayward adolescent gets told, “Youth services always finds a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little messed up teenage life.” “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” a song off the band’s four-year-hiatus-breaking new album, “Teeth Dreams,” takes place on a night with almost as many nods to gangs, crime and urban plight as “Jungleland.” “Jesus, this might be a mess!” Finn railed.
There is also Finn’s Boss-like ability to turn any venue hosting a Hold Steady show into a rock-and-roll church. During the night’s last anthem, “Stay Positive,” another homage to the power of pop (“The sing-along songs will be our scriptures!” Finn shout-spoke), the band hushed as Finn led a final whoa-whoa-whoa chorus.The believers went home yelling out the song’s title.
McKenna is a freelance writer.