The Hold Steady at the Bowery Ballroom – June 8th 2009

It All Started With a Positive Jam

Before heading over to the Bowery Ballroom to catch the Hold Steady on Monday evening Brent and I met up for the burger and beer special at Irving Mill.  The last I heard the deal was the burger, a shot of rye, and a Sixpoint Rightous Rye – quite the combo at $15.  As it turned out when we went the rye had been replaced by a dark rum which we took in the form of a riff on the traditional daquiri with a little strawberry puree and the Righteous Rye had been replaced with the Six Point Sweet Action – the predominating beer of my new neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Over our incredibly juicy – but nicely charred – burgers Brent and I discussed my new theory of why the Hold Steady are so appealing.  For a long time I had thought it was because they so purely embody rock and roll, meditate on a number of significant themes such as religion and the angst of coming of age with potent combination of earnestness and irony.  But earlier in the day when listening to what the French call their “work,” I realized that the mediations on these themes didn’t just operate through thematic exploration but also through the heavy repetition of specific phrases.  Phrases such as “holding steady,” “staying positive,” or “positive jam” or others like them are used so often that there is an addition to the natural lyrical depths of the Hold Steady’s songs.  On top of the explorations interior to each song, these repetitions allow for actual examination of what are otherwise stock phrases.   The greatness of the song writing is that when all of the songs are listened to as a whole, an exploration of the meaning of these concepts starts to come through.  It’s an exploration that begins with the content of the lyrics but ultimately leads to the reflection of the listener. 

At the Heart on a Stick blog I found this post which has a paragraph, the first sentence of which also touches on these ideas:

If you wanted to get overly analytical, you could say that what the Hold Steady is doing is establishing an iconography, relying on recurrent phrasing, names and imagery to define its world.  It seems more likely, though, that Finn’s simply doomed to continually repaint the same canvas, to include every last bit of brainstorm that flashes across his synapses  (Lord help us should we ever hear him sing, “My name is William, people call me Bill.”).

Regardless, the concert–the first of four nights in New York –was truly excellent.  The front few rows near the center were populated by what looked like by a bunch of people wearing softball shirts with the name “Stayin’ Posi,” some of whom had traveled a great distance (one even from the U.K.) to be at the show.  They were an online fan community  apparently.

The opener Right on Dynamite were competent songwriters, had good stage banter and were very tight rhythmically though a few harmonies seemed to miss the mark.  Definitely a solid opener. 

The Hold Steady came out one by one, each to great applause, with Craig Finn last.  I was too caught up in the show to even think about keeping a set list.  The music just demands that you jump and dance and shake your arms.  I didn’t high-five anyone during the show and I regret it.

As I recall, they did “Positive Jam,” “Squestered in Memphis,” “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” “Stay Positive,” “Stuck Between Stations,” “Chips Ahoy!” “Southtown Girls,” “The Swish,” “Killer Parties,” and “Most People are DJs” among other.  And I’ve been listening to “Both Crosses” so much I can’t remember if they played it since it’s constantly bouncing around in my head.

These guys rock out, have fun on stage, and establish a relationship with the audience.  It’s tremendous.  Craig Finn was just as great as I remembered at Terminal 5 back in November.  He’s animated but not quite manic.  He knows he’s performing, but it seems so earnest.  He just picks this channel and communicates to the audience.  He’ll often repeat lyrics or just say things off the microphone and suddenly the energy that’s not capable of being communicated in words comes through—an overwhelming excitement or emotion that resonates and feels like it might just come pouring out of you—when Finn intentionally delivers his words with the specific aim of having them not be heard.  He shows the incommunicable.  It’s amazing. 

[In  In the move to Brooklyn I’m not sure where my card reader is.  Pictures and video to follow, I hope.]

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