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Outgrowin' The Scene

The Hold Steady, Rams Head Live!, June 27

Jefferson Jackson Steele
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH: The Hold Steady embraces elder stateman status at Rams Head Live!.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 7/2/2008

A few weeks after the digital release of its fourth studio album, Stay Positive, the Hold Steady returned to Baltimore, the site of its second- and fourth-ever live shows, and boy were the middle-aged men in the audience loving it. We're talking fist-pumping and receding hairlines in equal measure, and guys--strangers--suddenly turning face-to-face when their girlfriends went to the bathroom or for another drink, and shouting at each other along with lead singer Craig Finn's lyrics, playing at their air guitars. The estimated split, by our count, was roughly 70/30, male to female.

Back in the early parts of this decade, the Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis band, which plays straight-ahead, Bruce Springsteen-influenced bar rock, was doing gigs at the Talking Head and the Supreme Imperial. This time it was at the 2,000-capacity Ram's Head Live!, with its microbrews on tap and its flat-screen TVs. Bigger venues for bigger crowds and a band with more exposure makes sense, but the problem with the Hold Steady's performance was not that it has grown up and grown into its ever-broadening popularity; rather, it's that the band has aged, and appears to have embraced it fully.

After a set of psych-metal by North Carolina's Birds of Avalon, a noisy five-piece that looks like Grand Funk Railroad and plays guitar solos in fifths like Boston, the Hold Steady opened with "Constructive Summer," a song that sounds a bit too much like a Home Depot ad--"We're gonna build something this summer/ with love and trust and friends and hammers/ We're gonna climb up to the top and drink and talk"--for a band known for its strikingly literate lyrics. Onstage, Finn bopped around awkwardly, head-banging and dressed in nerdy low-slung khakis, tennis shoes, and a short-sleeve collared shirt.

The thing is, Finn's nerdy appeal used to lie in the fact that he was writing songs that glorified a type of druggy, guilty-Catholic personal mythology of his own youth. But Stay Positive abandons all those themes--debauchery, loneliness, the urge to fit in, and redemption, for example--that made records such as Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America so compelling. On Friday night he actually sang, while scuttling stiffly about the stage and making his trademark hand gesticulations, which make him look sort of like a slam poet, the following lines, from the title track of the new album:

Most kids give me credit for being down with it/ When it was back in the day, back when things were way different/ When the Youth of Today and the early 7 Seconds taught me some of life's most valuable lessons/ There's gonna come a time when the scene'll seem less sunny/ It'll probably get druggy and the kids will seem too skinny/ There's gonna come a time when she's gonna have to go with whoever's gonna get her the highest/ There's gonna come a time when the true scene leaders forget where they differ/ And get the big picture/ `Cause the kids at their shows will have kids of their own, and their sing-along songs will be our scriptures

And people cheered, and held up their hands in pointer-and-pinky finger rawk sign language, and slam-danced in adulation. One after another, the songs from Stay Positive, like "Navy Sheets," "Lord, I'm Discouraged," and "Slapped Actress," made it clear, that the Hold Steady is no longer music for teenagers, no matter how much it rocks. It's music for thirtysomethings, at the very youngest, and more so meant for men--definitely men--approaching middle age.

The set went pretty soft around the middle, with "Joke About Jamaica," "Charlemagne in Sweat-pants," and few other songs all sort of blending together. But Finn never really let up on the energy. He continued to pound his feet on the stage and mouth phantom words between the lines he sang into the microphone, and the crowd continued to eat it up.

There were definitely some highlights, but most of them were from the band's earlier work. "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," "Chips Ahoy," and "Hornets! Hornets!" were exciting when paired with all the physical energy in the place, and even "Sequestered in Memphis," the band's current single, had moments where absolutely everyone in the place was singing along. And keyboardist Franz Nicolay added a hilarious flair to the show, appearing dressed all in black with a tiny red tie, his trademark curled mustache, and sipping from a bottle of red wine in between playing and prancing about with what looked like Russian folk-dance moves. Seeing all the beefcakes pumping their fists at him, too, only confused the band's working-class rock persona. But with the Hold Steady settling into such an easy role these days as a midlife crisis rock band, maybe that's a good thing.

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