w/ The Loved Ones
Sun. Aug. 10
1977 Maybank Hwy.
"Sequestered in Memphis" from the album Stay Positive
Every night before he goes on stage, Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler thinks to himself, "Let's see what we can do tonight."
As pre-show rituals go, it doesn't sound like much. But it says everything. That here-goes-nothin' attitude has helped to make The Hold Steady a favorite of critics and fans alike. But all the band is concerned with is making the music its members want to listen to.
Kubler calls the band "pretty traditional." And the additions of non-traditional instruments on this year's Stay Positive (Vagrant) — notably, harpsichord on "One for the Cutters" and synth on "Navy Sheets" — don't detract from the straight-ahead feeling. And the band's trademark lyrics? "That's just how [frontman] Craig Finn is," says Kubler. "He loves to tell stories."
The beauty of The Hold Steady is in its combination of few-frills bar-rock, coupled with Finn's verbose and vivid lyrics. It gives the songs the ability to turn the lives of damaged characters into bottle-in-hand anthems, mining universal truths from seedy specifics.
"You either see yourself or somebody you know in the characters," says Kubler without a hint of overstatement. Finn's stories, even if exaggerated, pin down universal truth. His one-liners stick forcefully like darts finding cork behind puffs of smoke. "Our band represents, for a lot of people, just basic human instincts," says Kubler — instincts that lead Finn's characters into addiction, broken relationships, and a search for redemption that often never comes.
"Lord, I'm Discouraged" puts a lead-footed waltz behind a tale of crumbling romance and a woman who can only offer "excuses and half-truths and fortified wine." Even on Stay Positive's rousing title track, oh-whoa-oh gang vocals are countered by the not-so-comforting truths of growing up. "The kids at the shows, they'll have kids of their own/The sing-along songs will be our scriptures," Finn declares. "We gotta stay positive." It's an optimistic mantra, for sure. But optimistic mantras only matter when optimism is hard to come by. And Finn makes his an imperative.
But despite the songs' sullen tendencies, there's a catharsis that comes with the sing-along nature of bar rock, a sense of fist-pumping communalism that is audible in the urgency with which Hold Steady songs are played.
Kubler calls their shows joyful affairs, buoyed by the feeling of a packed room of people all having fun together. "The live shows are really just a celebration of what we all do together, and the more people we get involved in that, the more fun it's gonna be for everybody," he says.
And the live element is necessary to get a whole picture of the band. Not just some sad-sack rock 'n' roll revivalists, The Hold Steady — as great bands tend to do — turn misery into uplift. Things may not work out for Finn's characters, but they just might for us. They might be lonely, but we've got a packed house. It soon becomes clear that there's no irony in calling their latest record Stay Positive. That's the freakin' point.
"It's right there in front of you," Kubler says. "It doesn't have to be that complex. You can feel that joy if you just allow yourself to."