There’s a line in The Hold Steady’s “Slapped Actress” that seems more apposite than ever right now. It’s the point where Craig Finn sings, “Some nights it’s entertainment and some other nights it’s just work,” though this afternoon, some might say significantly, he doesn’t actually sing the word “work”. We are watching the Hold Steady play in the sort of environment that, surely, must test even their unquenchable faith in the redemptive power of rock’n’roll and so on.
The band are tucked into the back of the HMV store on Oxford Street, sweating beneath the striplights. I’m a couple of rows from the front, just next to the Byrds and Butthole Surfers racks. This really must be the sort of gig where Finn and his bandmates go through the motions, isn’t it? I mean, even their positive jams can only go so far?
That’s what I thought at the start, anyway. Thirty-five minutes later, The Hold Steady finish with the choral bellows of “Slapped Actress”, and it’s plain, yet again, that these unprepossessing men can make a cherishable rock’n’roll happening in the unlikeliest places.
“Stay Positive” was released this morning, and so the setlist is entirely made up of new songs: “Constructive Summer”, “Sequestered In Memphis”, “One For The Cutters”, “Cheyenne Sunrise”, “Magazines”, “Lord I’m Discouraged”, “Stay Positive” and “Slapped Actress”. “Cheyenne Sunrise” appears to be a bonus track on the finished copies of the album, and is a sweetly hammy country soul vamp – a Muscle Shoals pastiche, really – in which Craig Finn makes explicit – possibly too explicit – the themes of ageing which undercut the whole album.
There are tidyish new haircuts for the new season of touring, and some new bits of kit, too: “Lord I’m Discouraged” sees Franz Nicolai brandishing an accordion, and Tad Kubler grappling, with a staunch absence of irony, with a doubleneck guitar. As he wades into his big solo at the song’s climax, Finn is dancing and clapping in front of him, even more delighted than ever at the bold, ageless music has band can create.
Finn, actually, seems to mainly use his own guitar as a means of restraint – to stop him cavorting around the stage – rather than a musical instrument. He has, of course, other things to concentrate on, though he does allude to a crack in his reputation as a great lyricist when he describes the borderline misogynist “Magazines” as his girlfriend’s least favourite Hold Steady song.
Best here, I think, are those chundering new anthems, “Constructive Summer” and “Stay Positive”, which reveal their hardcore roots more openly when played live. And “Slapped Actress”, an epiphany about the artifice, passion and extraordinary business of being in a rock’n’roll band whose emotional heft seems to perversely grow in such theoretically sterile surrounds.
A full gig would’ve been nice, of course. But we had Club Uncut and the incredible White Denim to deal with, anyway. . .