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Hold Steady

at GAMH, 10/18

The retro-centric obsession steering our culture can often make it difficult to avoid the numbing effect of familiarity. Listen to a modern rock station, and you are likely to hear a NEW new-wave band back to back with an OLD new-wave band. Needless to say, those not up on their Rolling Stone and Spin would be hard pressed to tell the difference. This is not a general criticism -- a good song is a good song no matter when it was produced, and there is certainly much to love and mimic from decades past. However, if historical "references" become too encompassing and too plagiaristic, we risk cultural stagnation.

The Hold Steady seem to have found a way to exist in this historically oriented environment and push the envelope at the same time. It helps that the genres they reference haven't yet been soiled by the greedy fingers manufacturing the current modern rock scene. The Hold Steady describe their music as "bar rock", but this belies the intention and skill with which it was created. In a recent interview in Pitchfork, vocalist/frontman Craig Finn discusses the roots of the Hold Steady aesthetic:

"I would say the Hold Steady is classic rock with a lowercase "c," in that the riffs are familiar. Everywhere but in New York, part of your teenage years were spent in cars. I graduated high school in 1989, and there was no alternative rock radio, and there wasn't really good college radio you could get on a car stereo. Once you get a car at that age, you're spending all the time you can away from home, sometimes just driving around aimlessly. Listening, or not even listening, but subconsciously soaking up this classic rock barrage. I can still sing most Eagles songs, even though I never bought a record and never liked the band. So there's a familiarity to the Hold Steady. That's kind of a Zeppelinesque riff there. It makes you feel okay or something."

The resulting sound is one that references a spectrum of classic rock and roll -- Zepplin, AC/DC, Journey, even a bit of the Heartbreakers and the Boss. This isn't the 60s garage rock revival that we've gotten used to over the last few years. This is 70s hard rock -- balls out with no apologies. There are dual guitars, screaming solos, E Street Band piano slides, and plenty of fist-pumping. And gosh, does it ever sound refreshing.

It is Finn's lyrical and vocal style that truly distinguish The Hold Steady. As unharmonious a singer as there ever has been, Finn delivers his steady stream of thick lyrical content in a jagged, broken, half-yell. Occasionally he approaches a semblance of a melody, especially during some of the catchier choruses. However, Finn more often wrestles his visions of mid-western back-alleys, promiscuous catholic apostates, punk-rock pimps, and born-again redemption into a spittle-flying rock and roll sermon. Finn's songs are complex, detail-laden character sketches about catholic schoolgirls turned wayward punk-rock hoodrats and sweat-pant sporting pimps wreaking havoc on the local scene. Finn speaks on his lyrical style (Pitchfork):

"There was someone else I was talking to in an interview -- I can't remember who -- who said Leonard Cohen said that specific songs with specific images make things the most universal. My style of lyric-writing is very specific and has a lot of details, and I think people react most to that."

The Hold Steady are well worth a listen, even if the thought of spoken-word generally sends you scuttling down the nearest sewer drain. The music is too compelling and far too rocking to ignore, and Craig Finn actually has something to say.

The Hold Steady co-headlining with The Constantines
at The Great American Music Hall
Tuesday, 10/18
Doors open at 7:30, show starts at 8:00.
Advance tickets: $13, $15 at door