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Thanks For Listening, Thanks For Understanding: The Hold Steady Come Alive In London

Wednesday, 14 March 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Illustration: Thomas Norton

There are easier jobs than singing along with Craig Finn, particularly when he’s in this sort of mood. His arms are spread wide, proselytising like the old days. He shimmies and shakes. His guitar, never his closest friend, swings at his waist like an invitation to a party he’s only half into. His words pour out and are yelled back by everyone who can keep pace; anyone who hasn’t already screamed their voice to shreds. It’s good to see him back in a bar band, baby.

The Hold Steady are midway through show one of a three night stand in London - two at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, another along the road at the Lexington - and it’s Friday night. Me and my friends are like: “DoublewhiskeyCokenoice.” And, after similar outings in New York and Chicago in the last 18 months, maybe things are starting to feel concrete in their world again.

They open with Stuck Between Stations, a signature song from their ‘Boys and Girls in America’ album. Midway through they arrive at its piano break, the passage that the whole thing hinges on. For the first time in a decade on these shores, Franz Nicolay is there to play it. “Hey Franz,” Finn says, and the place comes unglued. It’s a pro-wrestling pop: the crowd knows it’s going to happen, but the thrill still takes hold.

The Hold Steady have always been a great live act. They were back in the early days, they still were after Nicolay left and Steve Selvidge attempted to bridge the gap by adding a third guitar to proceedings. But this configuration of the band - six strong, with both Nicolay and Selvidge in harness - is a best of both worlds deal. The decision not to hire a replacement, full-time piano player looks like a good one in 20/20 hindsight.

Still, there were some dicey moments along the way. ‘Heaven is Whenever’ and ‘Teeth Dreams’, the two albums made during Nicolay’s absence, aren’t all bad, but they’re fighters who’d have little chance in tight exchanges with predecessors that stand like Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran in terms of recent rock history. On 2013’s Hoodie Weather, the Wonder Years’ Dan Campbell, a writer with Finn’s eye for detail and flair for mythmaking, sang: “Growing up means watching my heroes turn human in front of me.” The Hold Steady seemed for a time to be caught in those particular crosshairs.

The pact they made with us was that they’d take everyone with them - to the top or the bottom - as long as we stuck around. Those records set the compass spinning on that issue. Finn’s characters go high and low, sometimes really low, but we believe things can better for them (and by extension, us). Tonight, fittingly, there’s a feeling that the Hold Steady have taken some licks and come back stronger. People have certainly stuck around: the crowd is a heaving mass of spilled beer, pogoing and hugs. As Finn yells during a febrile Constructive Summer: “Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.”

Then there are the new songs. The two we get - Eureka and Entitlement Crew - are half of an impressive contingent wheeled out in recent months. The former is a confident pop-rocker that finds Finn borrowing from the spoken word approach that lit up God in Chicago, the best song on his last solo record, while the latter’s hook is a “stay positive” for Hold Steady mark three. It’s the first lyric in a while that feels tailor made for repeated use by the Unified Scene, the band’s uber-dedicated fan network. Finn delivers it as such on stage: “Thanks for listening, thanks for understanding.”

His patter throughout finds an easy balance between big ideas and little in jokes. It is a potent mix of repurposed Paul Stanleyisms and musings on the power of truth. It’s a tavern-wrought reimagining of Bruce Springsteen’s hoary shtick that serves up some of the night’s best moments: an extended intro to First Night and the linking of riotous highlights Massive Nights and Your Little Hoodrat Friend: “She had a gun in her mouth, and she was shootin' up at her dreams when the chaperone said...your little hoodrat friend makes me sick.” It’s tremendous fun, and Finn is having his fair share of it.

For a band like the Hold Steady - lifers, basically - shows like this one are easy to pull off. They’ve been away, and people have missed them. They have a bag of hits. It’s the weekend and the world outside is begging to be escaped from. But they don’t make it look easy. They make it look like it takes everything they have and that the effort is worth it. They give a shit, through rivulets of sweat and youthful energy delivered from middle aged knees. The fizzing new songs are the final proof: bands out for a quick buck reunion lap don’t generally bother with extra credit.

Is this how a resurrection really feels?

Huw Baines is the editor of Stereoboard. He's on Twitter.

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