Uncut Editor's Diary

The Hold Steady take London by storm

Allan Jones

You’ll have to excuse me if I sound as hoarse as a hacksaw this morning and seem more than a little rough around the edges, but I am in slow recovery from an extraordinary night in the company of The Hold Steady, who for today at least are officially the best rock’n’roll band on the planet.

If you were anywhere in the east of London last night and were maybe aware of some celestial commotion in the sky above Hoxton Square, some supernatural luminosity you couldn’t put a name to, I’d like to think it was the probably unearthly glow generated by what was going on in the back room of the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, where The Hold Steady were going about what they do better than almost anyone else I’ve ever seen.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see The Arcade Fire, a fan of Funeral fully expecting to be overwhelmed from what I’d heard about them live from people whose opinion I am usually inclined to trust without question. It was an evening that descended faster than I’d imagined possible into sullen disappointment, although I am sure they will have better nights.

As regular Uncut readers will be more than passingly aware, I have recently been mightily smitten by The Hold Steady’s Boys And Girls In America – in actuality the third album from the Brooklyn-based, Minneapolis-reared quartet, but possibly the first thing by them most of us here will have heard.

I was fretful beforehand, worried that once again my expectations may have got out of hand, but buoyed somewhat by reports from the band’s Manchester gig in Thursday’s editions of The Independent and Guardian that suggested that every stateside superlative I’d lapped up about The Hold Steady’s live shows was absolutely on the money, neither hot air or merely baloney.

In the event, they were just sensational.

Visually, they are no one’s idea of pin ups, rather resembling a police line-up. But they have an undeniably raffish charm, best represented by debonair keyboardist Franz Nicolay, and in singer and genius songwriter Craig Finn, who looks like a tousled cross between Elvis Costello and a severely crumpled Randy Newman, they have a frontman who brings a Pentecostal rapture to everything they play. For the entire gig, he wears the beaming smile of someone for whom every moment he’s on stage is a kind of salvation. Like The Drive-By Truckers, you suspect that for The Hold Steady what they do is less a career than a vocation, the answer to a calling.

On Boys And Girls In America, you can hear loud and vivid echoes of the rowdy turmoil of Springsteen’s E-Street Band in their impassioned prime. What I hear more often tonight, however, as the Hold Steady blast ferociously through their incredible songbook, is the searing white hot brilliance of Costello and The Attractions in the days when they were still playing rooms this size and thrillingly essaying the material that would eventually light up This Year’s Model.

It’s a big bold sound, full and furious, relentlessly dynamic, a spinning kineticism that is never top-heavy, or overburdened with unnecessary frills or discursive solos. Everything’s to the point, honed to a lethal sharpness and played with a homicidal momentum that means the entire set goes by in a flash, with more on-stage drinking than I’ve seen since The Replacements played the old Mean Fiddler in Harlseden. These are clearly people for whom being in a band is the best thing in the world, every night you’d like to think one hell of a party.

Anyway, before you know it, they’ve gone from the stunning “Stuck Between Stations” to the ecstatic set-closer “Southtown Girls”, and Craig Finn is barging past me through the fire exit, the band following him at close quarters and the fire doors clanging shut behind them.

The audience of course is howling for more and there’s a distinctly Tap-like moment when I realise the banging I can hear is the band trying to get back into the teeming room they’ve only just vacated and I have to open the fire doors for them to get back in.

What follows is even more of a rushing blur and ends with a mass stage invasion, more people up there it seems with the band by the end than there are in the crowd that’s watching them.

I later meet up with Craig who’s every bit the chap you hoped he’d be and more. We are soon in rapt conversation about The Replacements, for whom we share a mutual passion, our excited chatter interrupted at one pint by the chief music critic of The Observer, who first of all shakes Craig’s hand, then drops to her knees and kisses her feet, much to Craig’s frank astonishment.

It all starts to unravel following that, and gets especially blurred after someone presents Craig with a bottle of champagne, which he pours into a couple of pint glasses and we end up toasting Paul Westerberg before downing the bubbly and getting back into the beer, the room beginning to tilt somewhat on its axis at this point and the sky outside still aflame with the light I mentioned earlier when I stumble into Hoxton Square, my ears still ringing and my head aswirl.

A brilliant night, even if I am suffering for it today.


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