A few dirty admissions about The Hold Steady - as clever as its songs are, they yield almost no perfect licks that send them skyward; committed as its members’ playing is, the instrumental prowess is limited; the songs constantly retread the same lyrical themes and story lines (underage drugs and sex and ironic deadpan nostalgia for the confusion inherent in the combination); most of all, it’s pretty much all been done before, mostly by the influences the band unabashedly wears on its sleeve (The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, etc.).
And the thing is, none of this matters.
It’s all too rare to see a band have as much fun on stage or come out with such an explosion of energy as The Hold Steady did on a Monday night in Los Angeles (which, as we all know, only barely trails New York in terms of too-coolness). Waving his arms wildly and shouting out his words even when he was careening far out of range of his microphone, Craig Finn managed to sport a shit-eating grin for every last second of the set, and couldn’t even try to hide the fact that he meant it. Every note The Hold Steady played in the roughly one hundred minutes in front of the Troubadour crowd had a sense of insistent love and joy about it, even as the lyrics scotch-taped the outlines of scarred teenage years and the inevitability of self-destruction and boredom in the muddling hinterlands of hood rat America. Fun as the ride is, there’s a vaguely creepy tinge of claustrophobia latent in The Hold Steady’s celebration of freedom, a dichotomy echoed in the Kerouac quote for which the band’s new album was named: “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.”
But not on this particular night. In Los Angeles, the opportunity presents itself to watch a half-cocked Kiefer Sutherland flirt with ladies in the upstairs VIP lounge, but more interesting is watching The Hold Steady gradually wind a crowd into rock reverie – singing along to album tracks that have barely been out two weeks, clapping to every song, and, at the end of the encore, zestfully mounting the stage en masse for an all-ages group hop around. A rock band such as this rockets its way to legend the more it becomes a vehicle for the release of that unhinged romantic luster of rock escape that lurks in the hearts of so many fans who still believe in something and are looking for a group to hoist that belief upon. And as the members of The Hold Steady slugged their stage whiskey and wrung every last zing of passion out into the night, they seemed pretty well up to the mantle and worthy of the faith.