I was hanging out with some friends, not long after moving to L.A., perhaps late in 2006. My friends had discovered that it was fun to ask me about bands I hate because I tend to be somewhat discursive when it comes to disliking certain shitty bands. I lamented that I actually like a lot of music, but no one ever asks me about it (my musical pathologist friend thinks this is why I started Bollocks!). One of my friends, without missing a beat, said, “You like The Hold Steady. We get it.”
And you know what? I do like The Hold Steady. A lot. Because they’re the best rock band in America. Because Craig Finn proves that you can be smart and still rock out. Because Tad Kubler is the most underrated guitarist in rock. And because Franz Nicolay is… just fucking awesome. My band has worked up a pretty good cover of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” and every time we play it, I’m reminded that The Hold Steady is another reason (among many) that I want to be in a band, even if it never goes anywhere. They’re a reminder that rock ‘n’ roll can be amazingly cathartic and, in an age of grim-faced, humorless indie music like Morrissey and Interpol, The Hold Steady helps us to remember that rock ‘n’ roll is fun.
So maybe I’m biased going into a review of The Hold Steady’s first live album, A Positive Rage, but isn’t that why you buy live albums? The Pitchfork review of A Positive Rage whined that this album won’t win any new fans for The Hold Steady and I laughed when I read that line. If someone wanted to get to know The Hold Steady, I wouldn’t start them with a live album or even a live show. I’d start them with Stay Positive. Because the live stuff is for the fans.
The Hold Steady is pretty good to their fans. I’ve already praised them (many times) for releasing Stay Positive on their MySpace page when it leaked early and they play energetic and awesome live sets, always taking the time to thank their fans. So A Positive Rage is The Hold Steady’s little gift to us, a snapshot from their 2006 tour for Boys and Girls in America, that allows each of us to travel down our own personal memory lane and think about the shows we attended on that tour.
The Boys and Girls in America Tour was the first time I saw The Hold Steady. It was in Portland at Lola’s Room. And it was… fucking…awesome. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Craig Finn says in the liner notes to A Positive Rage: “I always think the Pacific Northwest is tough to play, partially because of their liquor laws, and the way club staff seems to delight in enforcing them. However, at Lola’s, the small room in The Crystal Ballroom, there seem to be no rules. It was easily in the top three wildest shows we’ve ever played, and we could barely keep people off stage enough to play our instruments.”
Yeah, I was one of those people. I was right in front, and when the crowd surged forward, I was propelled, head first, onto the stage. Craig Finn hit me in the head with his guitar at least three times. He asked me if I was okay once and by about time number three, he laughed and asked, “Why is it always you?” I couldn’t reply – too busy singing along. I left that show rung out like an old rag and voiceless and the next morning, I had delayed-onset muscle soreness in my back. My sister was going to meet me in Eugene for lunch the next day and when she called around nine in the morning, I couldn’t really talk. It remains, to this day, the best rock show I’ve ever attended.
So for me, A Positive Rage is a reminder of how fulfilling it is for me to see The Hold Steady. I don’t go to church, ya see, so rock shows fill the void. There are two bands I’ve seen that have made me vow to try to see them whenever they come to my town. They are The Hold Steady and My Morning Jacket. And it’s because those two bands give amazing live performances.
I guess I should talk about the DVD that accompanies A Positive Rage. It’s more of a tour diary than a documentary, but it’s still insightful as hell. The Hold Steady are as surprised as anyone about their success, and seeing Craig Finn say that he and Tad started the band as an excuse to get together, drink beer, and play music, it mirrors the ambitions I have for my own band (we aim high). They are regular guys who formed a band, had a good time, and ended up doing pretty well for themselves. I’ll drink to that.
Since their 2006 tour, The Hold Steady has only gotten more popular (they did a South by Southwest gig for Rachel Ray. Yeah, the cooking chick), though they’re still not gonna creep onto your mainstream radio and nestle themselves in between the Killers stupidly asking if we’re human or dancer and Coldplay whining about fixing you. But now that I think about it, that’s kinda too bad. Because when I turn on the radio here in L.A., I get bored fast. And I never get bored listening to The Hold Steady. They were never designed to be the next Beatles (news flash – no one will be the next Beatles, so stop looking for it) but to their fans, they are an absolutely iconic presence. We turn to The Hold Steady for great rock ‘n’ roll and they are only too happy to deliver, time and time again. So the kids can have their Jonas Brothers and other people can pay hundreds of dollars to see U2 and Green Day play the stadiums, but when The Hold Steady comes to some smallish club in my town, I’ll be shelling out my 20 bucks to be right there with them, up to my neck in the sweat and wet confetti.