In a scene which has a tendency to place style over substance and glamour before sound, The Hold Steady are in some ways extremely unlikely rockstars. For about a decade and a half, Craig Finn and his ragtag band of musical misfits have been churning out a ragged, cerebral brand of rock n’ roll that has garnered a seriously loyal following. But it’s a strange phenomenon: frontman Craig Finn looks like a classics post-grad student, and the songs that he writes are wordy dissections of middle-American teenage angst. He talk-sings his venom at high speeds. Not exactly your typical arena rock-anthem fodder. And yet, when the Hold Steady turned up to play the Phoenix in Toronto, a vast majority of the audience, sloshed as they were, sang along with Finn’s wordy compositions without missing a beat. Signs that the Hold Steady’s songs have transcended the personal and entered a collective space.
The band kicked things off with “I Hope this Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” the opening song off of their latest album Teeth Dreams, and the audience found themselves plunged into the wrong side of the tracks in Minneapolis, or any-town North America. The scene had been set, punctuated by Finn’s epileptic moves that was part Southern preacher, part Nixon, and part David Byrne. This time around, the band comes sans piano but fortified by an extra guitar, so what whatever they’ve lost in subtlety, they’ve made up for in brawn. As well received as the opener was, it was their older material that really hit home for the audience. “Hot Soft Light” was an early favourite, a tongue-in-cheek look at casual drug addiction: “We started recreational/It ended kinda medical/ It came on hot and soft/And then tightened up its tentacles.”
Thematically, this is the Hold Steady’s stock-in-trade. Tales of suburban house parties, out of control ragers populated by hormone-and-substance addled teenagers who are kicking out against “that American sadness” with sex and drugs and rock n’ roll. They do this without judgement, with the tenderness and inner-knowledge of people who have been there, and this is probably why their show tended to be a boozy fist-pump fest.
But one of the things that sets them apart from mindless pop-hedonism is that they are acutely aware of the fallout of the lifestyle that they portray. For all the nervous excitement of the party life, Finn’s songs are populated by lost souls, rock n’ roll casualties, addicts and suicides. Beyond the recesses of substance fueled consciousness is the awareness that the drinks and drugs are inadequate panaceas for the spiritual malaise that infects the characters in the Hold Steady’s songs. “There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly/But he didn’t, so he died,” Finn sand in fan favourite “Stuck Between Stations.” But that’s not to say that the band is a downer. Far from it. When they launched into “Chips Ahoy!” for their encore, a tale about winning big at the races and “spending the whole next week getting high,” Finn sang those lines with such relish that you got the feeling that the band were hell bent on having a good time despite the consequences.