It's Valentine's day, so it's natural to think about love while waiting for the Hold Steady. Who comes out to a gig on the one night of the year we're all supposed to spend either actively being in love (and shouting about it with flowers, overpriced cards and suchlike), or snarling about why we're not in love, why love is hideous, and why Valentine's day is a dreadful capitalist charade?
Before I can ponder too much the band walk out. The Hold Steady are in many ways the exact opposite of bands like The Strokes, who are about to make their much heralded return. There's not a sharp crease or ironic leather jacket in sight. Instead, it looks like the band's accountant is walking up to the mic to make an announcement, backed up by some heavies he bribed at the bar with a case of beer (which now sits at the foot of the drums).
But here's the thing: while Craig Finn is no sharp cheekboned model frontman, he puts them all in the shade within moments. Tearing into openers 'Positive Jam' and 'Stuck Between Stations' backed by a thudding wall of whisky soaked Americana rock, he flails and gesticulates over the crowd, great plumes of spit and sweat framed against the lights. The opening numbers reference Kerouac and the strange specific desolation of American cities, which could put their meaning well out of reach for a Leeds crowd were it not for Finn's universal touch, conjuring images of lovelorn kids 'crushing one another with colossal expectations' as he dashes about the stage in a frenzy of flapping hands, pantomime eyebrow raises and wearing a giant, gleeful smile.
The band's songs demand this kind of treatment, populated as they are by a regular cast of Beat generation-esque characters redrawn for the modern age. From album to album the shuffling, rushing, raging, drug taking and beer swilling deadbeats and poets of Finn's imagination walk in and out of the songs. We hear of their triumphs and desperations in vestibules and hospitals in stories shot through with both religious images and sleazy back alley sex. Live, all these characters are channelled through Finn himself, making a Hold Steady gig only part rock concert – it's also a book reading, a happening of the kind where a drunken Kerouac would doubtless have slapped jugs of wine down on the table and hollered 'Go!', a soused burst of performance poetry set to music.
And what music, of course. There's no pretence at reinventing the wheel here - The Hold Steady are a bar band, but of the very highest calibre. As Finn preaches in 'Constructive Summer' to a sea of fists punching the air, 'Me and my friends are like / The drums on 'Lust for Life' / We pound it out on floor toms / Our psalms are singalong songs' and that's exactly why it all works. A rock solid rhythm section supports hard-driven Gibsons swapping solos and riffs with gutsy joy – from time to time Finn simply stands back as Tad Kubler wrings songs out of the fretboard, his ability to play both tough and tender making his guitar as much a character in the Hold Steady's stories as any of Finn's doomed lovers.
The crowd are treated to the whole range of tough and tender tonight, from the rough clatter of 'Navy Sheets' and 'You Can Make Him Like You', with its sideswipe at vapid party girls, to the bittersweet nostalgia of 'The Sweet Part of the City' and 'We Can Get Together' where the tempo drops and warm slide guitars smooth over the room like a 2am alcohol-induced slumber. Throughout, Finn chatters away between songs and it's abundantly clear that if he says 'heaven is whenever we can get together / Lock your bedroom door and listen to your records,' then it's because he means it. The Hold Steady are that rarest of things in the current music landscape – a real band with real songs about real life, and universal emotions we can all relate to wherever we are and whatever our age. This is proper rock music, as poetry and as a mirror to the world, played with genuine heart and a kind of unabashed joy that very few other groups can even hope to achieve.
So we come back to love, because that's the heart of the Hold Steady's songcraft, and it's clearly what they inspire in their devoted fans. And as for my earlier wondering about who comes out on Valentine's evening...well, Finn's been thinking about that too. 'You could have done anything tonight,' he says as the show winds up. 'You could have had a romantic dinner, or you could have sat at home writing a blog about yourself. But you didn't: you came to see a rock and roll show, and for that I've fallen in love with every single one of you.' He doesn't need to say anything else – he had us at 'hello' right at the start – but he concludes with his now-customary 'There is so much joy in what we do', which the crowd chants back, before adding 'All of us: you,' and he starts pointing into the sweating audience, 'you, you, the band, Brooklyn, Leeds...we are all The Hold Steady.'
With that the final chords of 'Killer Parties' whoomph out into a squalling crescendo of feedback and the band depart, leaving a jubilant crowd of rock fans more certain of the heart and soul in their music than ever before. Finn is right. It's Valentine's day, love is in the air, and right now – strangers hugging and lovers tottering out with arms around each other - we are all The Hold Steady.
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