I wanted to begin with my history with The Hold Steady as a jump off point referencing high school girlfriends, the record store I worked at in college, and driving from Columbus to Bloomington, Indiana listening to Boys and Girls In America chain-smoking cigarettes on a humid summer night with the windows down but quickly realized after writing close to five hundred words that I was writing prose and that’s not what this is about.
I arrived at Thalia Hall right around 8PM on Thursday night for the first of three nights of The Hold Steady’s Chicago residency in their Constructive Summer series. Four cities, three nights in each. I was under the impression there would be no openers for this show, that it would just be The Hold Steady, but I was wrong and saw the words Pkew Pkew Pkew on the sign leading into the concert hall. I thought to myself, I have no idea who this band is or what to expect but I have almost certainly seen the name before. What would go on to transpire was one of the most psychically offensive music experiences of my life thus far.
To be extremely explicit, I did not know Pkew Pkew Pkew before this instance. I had no prior bias, no expectations, I was standing in the front row amongst the forty and fifty year old men who populated the show and was as interested as I could be. The first song was your almost typical “Ha-ha I’m a shithead loser dude who crushes beers” type tune. Then so was every single song after for forty-five minutes. Between the songs the banter was “this song is about drinking” and “this song is about drinking with your friends” and “this is about getting drunk and playing video games.” I am not sure how it is possible that a band like this exists in 2019. Drunk punk was over in 2013. Beyond being conceptually irritating, every single song sounds the same with typical SideOneDummy styled chord progressions that anyone who listened to a NOFX record or The Lawrence Arms record could’ve pulled off. At a point, the lead guitar player thanked the crowd for playing in such a big room and noted that they typically play basements. Frankly, they should be locked in one and never allowed out. I encourage this band to stop operating. Thematically it is washed. Musically it is garbage. You appear to be at least thirty year old men singing songs about being drunk losers and this is embarrassing. I didn’t even want to name them to help boost their SEO but their band name is a sound so who knows if it’ll help at all. This is the antithesis of music.
So let’s dive into the Hold Steady and cleanse the palette. I have seen The Hold Steady three times in my life and each show was special for different reasons. That’s how their shows are though — special. Special seems like an especially vacuous word to use here but it is oddly appropriate for a band that seemingly exists within its own mythology as much as it exists in the modern American rock ’n roll canon. Craig Finn, ex-punk and sort of prosaic frontman of The Hold Steady, has a difficult role to fill in a world where rock ’n roll is dead. He exists as a sort of Don Quixote figure in my mind. I admit, I was fearful to see the band because the last five years haven’t been kind to them. Craig’s solo work has gone largely overlooked. His live shows haven’t been reviewed well with people tossing around words like lazy, uninspired, and lost. When he’s away from this band a lot of his sharp energy seems to turn to loose static. That wasn’t the case at Thalia Hall. When Craig hit the stage on August 22nd, his birthday, he struck the first chord and smiled under the stage lights and the entire room went wild.
Without feeding an ego too much, The Hold Steady is Craig’s true conduit. It cannot exist without his animated performance style and he cannot exist without it. And that’s what I mean when I say the band exists within its own mythology with Finn still fighting the battles of the young punks of the 80s and early 90s. Every song hit harder than the last, with the crowd growing more and more emotional and engaged as the set went on. Older men next to me, rock ’n roll dads, screaming every word and rock ’n roll moms singing along to every song was such an endearing thing to witness. Songs about sketchy skinheads, bad drugs, bandoleer belts of alcohol, and the girls you could’ve had but didn’t but might have had a chance with again under the right circumstances. It’s a crude history in song.
Only Craig could capture those moments with such poignant but hopeful twinkling eyes. He does not seem to see the world for what it is, but for what it was. It’s hard to keep these moments that young fans won’t have an easy time engaging with exciting and fresh but it struck me that maybe these shows aren’t for young people, not really. These songs are for the guys like Craig and the rest of the band. Old punks who now have the chance to turn their view backward and look back on the past, on what could have beens, what might’ve beens, and what could be’s and approach them with a semi-seasoned perspective. Not unlike Don Quixote, Finn seems almost insane to be singing about these things in a time where virtually no one seems to care about the fables of punks from thirty years ago. The Hold Steady are a magical, transportive band if you allow yourself to be their Sancho. Simultaneously, they represent a certain tragedy, that a group of extremely talent musicians can confine themselves to a world that is almost so self involved that they are defeated by their inability to exist in common reality.
As a fan, as an aforementioned Sancho, I was happy to follow them into the unknown with Craig leading the way. He’s got a magic about him that few performers have or could even hope to have. On stage, he is fighting battles that we could only see in movies or read in books. He’s punching back Nazi punks in Minneapolis push pits and he’s still mustering the courage to talk to the beautiful girl across the room that noticed him at the last big party a few nights before. His world isn’t this world but that’s OK. Their performance was a marvelous crusade, as it should have been and as it should be, and I will be there for the next.