Uncut Editor's Diary

The Hold Steady Blow The Roof Off, Again

Allan Jones

I mentioned yesterday’s that I was just off to see The Hold Steady at the Islington Academy and I duly went and they were, as ever, duly brilliant – urgent, incendiary, delirious, a symphonic juggernaut, a hurtling thing, a wholly rousing noise.

This was where a few years ago, they made their London debut, to a room Craig Finn remembers was so empty he’s able to refer to members of that sparse audience by name. Tonight, the Academy’s small space is crammed, a heaving howling mob in boisterous mood waiting impatiently for the band when I get there, getting rowdier by the moment.

This is a warm-up show for their headlining appearance this weekend at the End Of The Road festival, a rare chance these days to see The Hold Steady in the kind of ‘intimate’ environment where for years they toiled, honing their musical craft to its current perfection. Everyone I speak to feels lucky to be here, as do the band themselves, their career over the last couple of years taking off in ways they seem still surprised by.

You might think by now that Finn’s inclination towards public humility, his much-expressed gratitude to people for buying the band’s records, turning up in numbers to their shows, would have worn a bit thin, become something of a performance in itself. It hasn’t, because he’s one of those people who seem incapable of playing the crowd with any hint of cynicism.

If he tells us that what The Hold Steady have become rescued him from the dead-end his life was looking at, the dream he had that has come riotously true, we believe him, unquestioningly. He can be hammy, no doubt about it, but cheerfully so. And it’s something that will probably always make you want to take his side and cheer him on. He seems, no less than the rest of the band, to be so happy to be where he is you’re just glad for him, pleased for them. It’s a kind of shared euphoria that makes everyone feel good going on great, a collective experience it’s a thrill, generally, to be part of.

Any thought that tonight would be the equivalent of someone doing cautious warm-up exercises before a big race, or a light sparring session before a big fight, nothing too strenuous, in other words, the real work to come this weekend in Dorset, is made to seem ridiculous from the off. They start, explosively, with “Constructive Summer”, “Hot Soft Light” and “Magazines”, one detonation after another, with more to come, the Academy’s roof already blown off, Tad Kubler’s guitar solos doing most of the damage.

What else do they play? “Sequestered In Memphis” arrives early, about five songs in, and its syncopated mayhem segues breathlessly into “The Swish”, “Massive Nights” coming up on the rail behind it. “Party Pit”, “Same Kooks”, “Stevie Nix”, “You Can Make Him Like You”, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” aren’t far behind, “Stay Positive” and “Slapped Actress”, the audience hoarse from singing by then, taking the set across the finishing line at a furious gallop.

Along the way, there are four new numbers, still being worked up, you suspect, but already sounding in great shape, hearing them for the first time stirring an eager anticipation for the next album. Working titles are “Heaven Is Whenever”, “Going On A Hike”, “Separate Vacations”, “Our Whole Lives” and there are hints in them, here and there, of things from the last album like “Navy Sheets” and “Yeah Sapphire”, also on “Our Whole Lives” moments that make me think of the dark drift of something like “Both Crosses”.

It’s played tonight as the second of three encores, book-ended by an incandescent “First Night” and a tumultuous “Killer Parties”.

“We’re The Hold Steady and we fucking love you,” Finn fairly yells at the end and he can tell by the cheers that come back at him and all the stomping and yelling and so on that the feeling’s more than mutual.


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