An enduring appeal

I first heard of The Hold Steady – the Brooklyn-based five-piece with roots in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul – last year when Stay Positive was the lead new album review in MOJO magazine. I think they’d also been featured in an Observer Music Monthly piece about ‘intelligent rock’ (or some such), and the references to the apparent influence of Springsteen and the band’s use of interesting lyrics were enough to persuade me to take a punt.

I wasn’t particularly inspired by the first couple of listens, finding singer Craig Finn’s nasal delivery quite grating, but then without noticing I found myself humming the tunes and remembering snatches of the words. Within a very short space of time I’d bought the first three albums too, and was – quite literally – listening to nothing else (although I must admit I’ve always enjoyed Stay Positive and Boys and Girls in America a lot more than the first two records). The condensed lyrical delivery of Stuck Between Stations, rippling and spluttering on top of vibrant, ridiculous power chords, or the call to arms of Constructive Summer with its idiosyncratic reference to Joe Strummer being “our only decent teacher”. The sing-a-long choruses and the grown-up treatment of grown-up topics. I think if I was honest they’re my favourite band, even if acts like Radiohead have more to recommend them in terms of musical prowess. They’re just so damn likeable; charismatic and honest; complex but utterly straightforward. My feelings towards them were absolutely reinforced when I saw them live at the The Roundhouse in Camden, just before last Christmas, when their fantastic live energy was no surprise at all but their sheer joyfulness and playful attitude was (with Craig bouncing around like a complete loon, waving his hands and grinning from ear to ear). There’s a great review of the gig in the Observer which captures the experience much more successfully than I could.

So it’s with all that in mind that I have to say I found the documentary that accompanied the live album released earlier this year – called A Positive Rage – a bit disappointing. To start with the live performances, as rendered on the film anyhow, were a very impoverished cousin of the band I’d seen at The Roundhouse. But maybe that was just the fault of the sound systems in the venues in question, most of which were much smaller; or the equipment used to record the documentary itself. I think what I was most surprised by, however, was how comparatively serious and sober the band seemed to be. Or perhaps not how serious, because they were pretty relaxed and let’s face it, being filmed whist on tour must be a pretty odd experience, but how self-consciously aware they were of the importance of ‘having fun’ on stage and engaging the audience. Perhaps this is just one of those cases of not wanting to see behind the wizard’s curtain.

As a footnote: I’ve read MOJO since about the age of sixteen, and have become utterly, utterly bored with it. For about the last four or five editions I’ve flicked through and found almost nothing I could be bothered to read. I’ve been putting off cancelling my subscription because, I think, when you’ve read anything on a monthly basis for more than a decade you feel a certain affinity, but I really do think the time has come.

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