It’s been said that The Hold Steady are the greatest damn bar band in all of the land, but these days that assessment may not of the glowing connotation that whoever said that once meant it to have. Somewhere in the middle of planning for the band’s last album Heaven is Whenever, long time keyboardist Franz Nicolay came to the conclusion that his work with the band was done and just like that, he was out of the band. The resulting record was spotty at best and at worst seemed disconnected from everything that had made The Hold Steady so great to begin with.
Before, it had always seemed as if singer Craig Finn was a major player in his tales of druggy, reckless youth gone wild. After Nicolay’s departure the focus shifted less on the band and directly onto Finn, who whatever reason seemed to be outside of his stories now. The shift in narrative focus was even made more jarring by the absence of Nicolay’s joyful keyboards in favor of more traditional arrangements. The point is, is that it just wasn’t the same.
What does all of this have to do with The Hold Steady’s performance Thursday night? Everything and nothing I suppose. The band sold out the 9:30 Club, a feat which they’ve repeated over and over for years now, and the fans, as fans will be, were no less rabid for anything that the band was willing to give them. Which was a lot in fact. Even though he just turned 40, Craig Finn is still his hyper-energized jackhammer of a performer self, and even when performing material (“Sweet Part Of The City”, “Hurricane J”) from the aforementioned Heaven Is Whenever, he managed to sell it to even the most skeptical (me) members of the crowd. It still wasn’t great, because of the raw material itself, but at least it showed a glimmer of the band that could once do no wrong.
But the fact remains that you can’t play a song like “Chips Ahoy” (off of 2006’s Boys and Girls In America) without those iconic keyboard fills and expect anyone to give a shit. If the Hold Steady’s reputation as greatest bar band in the world was meant as a complement in previous years, and an apt one at that, 2011’s version of the band is steering dangerously close to being just that: A bar band.
One bad album is never enough to kill a band, and it certainly isn’t in this case. But part of what made The Hold Steady such a great band in the past was the range of its sound. Their songs sounded like a revelatory drunken night in the best bar on the planet. Wailing guitars, fierce drums and yes, crazy calliope keyboards all came together to take a sound so familiar to everyone that it might as well be a part of every American’s genetic code, and elevate it to something else.
With the current lineup doing away with a keyboard player in favor of a THIRD guitarist, the band sounds more these days like a band who really, REALLY loves The Hold Steady, but much like a bar band can never sound exactly like The Rolling Stones, they can’t quite sound like the band they so very clearly love.
Not all of the catalog suffers in the end though. In fact most of the material from Separation Sunday remains relatively untouched. “How A Resurrection Really Feels” is still the lighter-in-the-air anthem that it always has been., and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” remains the best song they have ever, probably WILL ever, write. It was these moments and some material from the highly underrated Stay Positive that rescued the performance from its awkwardness.
And to be fair, there is a side of the band’s shows that has nothing at all to do with the music really. The sense of community and the ability to have a beer splatteringly good time that The Hold Steady has fostered over the years, can’t be taken from them or the audience. It’s one thing to critique the music, but anyone who says they went to a Hold Steady show to have a good time and and then didn’t is plainly lying through their teeth. You can’t be around that much sheer musical joy and escape unmoved.
In the end I guess it’s about legacy. The Hold Steady have been important in the past by bringing good goddamned rock and roll back to the table in a time where everything else pretty much sucked. That was then though, and while it’s still an exciting spectacle to behold, especially if you’ve never seen the band, they seem to be at a crossroads. Most bands when they get to this point can either soldier on and keep looking for new ways to express that thing that made them so magical earlier in their careers, or simply call it quits and go out on top.
I’m willing to accept some growing pains from any good band so I’m not sure which path I’m advocating for The Hold Steady at this point. Deep down though I hope that the lyric “Damn right I’ll rise again” is playing on repeat in the back of their minds, and that they take their own words to heart.