The band's members are approaching their late-30s, and all played in bands before the Hold Steady, most notably singer Craig Finn, who was a member of Minneapolis' equally lauded '90s art-punks Lifter Puller. But Finn was working an office job in 2002, thinking he had left his rock days behind him when he had the idea to start the "straight rock band" that became the Hold Steady.
Finn is a hyper-literate writer, and on most songs, does a sort of amped-up talk-sing thing instead of actually singing. All the better to hear what he's actually singing: tales of dead-end kids in small towns who dream of escape, but in the meantime find salvation in sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. If Jack Kerouac and the Bruce Springsteen of the '70s were somehow able to have a biological kid, that kid would be Finn.
(A side story: Last year, at a tribute show for Springsteen, Finn shared a mic with The Boss himself on "Rosalita." Finn's normal stage persona is that of a tightly wound spaz who looks like he means every word he's spitting; that night, he looked like his head was about to explode. Look it up on YouTube.)
The band's latest album, Stay Positive (Vagrant), which was released on July 15, represents the first time that the band, out of necessity, started to write on the road. Hold Steady albums usually have some sort of overarching theme, and this time around, Finn says, "Musically and lyrically, it's about the attempt to age gracefully." Unfortunately, my copy arrived too late to bear that out lyrically--Finn's lyrics are dense and take several listens to truly sink in--but musically, that's certainly the case.
While the band have, in the past, sounded like Thin Lizzy or a stripped-down E Street Band (albeit one with punk energy), the palette is expanded on Stay Positive. "One for the Cutters" adds a harpsichord throughout; "Navy Sheets" includes a synth that sounds like something straight off a Cars album; "Joke About Jamaica" has got a talk box à la Peter Frampton; "Lord, I'm Discouraged" is a true-blue power ballad with a lite-metal guitar solo. For these reasons, the album has been receiving not-quite-as-awesome reviews. But after a couple of listens, I'm not quite as turned off by these additions as some seem to be (though I have a feeling I'll end up skipping the failed ambition of "Both Crosses" on future listens). The Hold Steady may be getting a bit older, but they're not dead yet. And it's tough to hate on an album that opens with these lines: "Me and my friends are like / the drums on "Lust for Life" / We pound it out on floor toms / Our psalms are sing-along songs."
If you don't believe that last line, you clearly haven't been to a Hold Steady show. At the band's last Tucson appearance, at Club Congress in June 2007, after a guest appearance by Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner (who sang on a track on the last Hold Steady album, but whom they'd never met--Finn proclaimed, "One of my high school dreams just came true"), Finn invited members of the all-ages crowd onstage. Almost immediately, the entire stage was filled with bouncing kids, shouting along to every single word as if it were gospel. The moment was but one of many so powerful and inspiring that it reaffirmed my belief in the undying power of rock 'n' roll, and clearly I wasn't alone.
The Hold Steady understand the performer/audience relationship better than most bands. In the press kit for Stay Positive, Finn writes: "But possibly the most exciting aspect of our band is the community of fans that have followed us around the country. In talking to them, we have found that no matter their ages, they are so much like us as people, that they seem to be an extension of the music. A great American philosopher named D. Boon once said, 'Our band could be your life.' I think that is true. But, 'Your life could be our band,' is also a true statement. I know this because we have lived it."
The Hold Steady perform an all-ages show at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., on Saturday, Aug. 2. The Loved Ones open at 8 p.m. Advance tickets are available for $16 at the venue's box office, online at rialtotheatre.com or by calling 740-1000.
If Mario Matteoli's name sounds familiar, there's a reason: He was the frontman for the Austin alt-bluegrass/country band the Weary Boys. Following the usual "creative differences," Matteoli left the band, which soldiered on briefly without him, but is now defunct. He recently self-released his first solo album, Golden State, which could either be an allusion to his home state of California, or a reflection of where his head is at these days. If we're to believe the songs, Matteoli is deeply, madly in love with Cayce Marsh, his partner in affairs of the heart and music--she sings on some of the songs on the album. There's not a trace of bluegrass to be found on Golden State, and it's far more subdued than the raucous stuff the Weary Boys used to churn out. Instead, it sounds a bit like a mellower version of The Band, if they had had their roots in California instead of Woodstock, N.Y.
Matteoli shared a couple of stages at this year's South by Southwest with Tucson singer-songwriter Andrew Collberg, and the two became fast friends. So it's gotta be a treat for Collberg to share a bill with Matteoli at this particular gig, which doubles as a release party for Collberg's latest disc, a self-released five-song EP that serves as a stopgap while he continues working on his next full-length. In the past, Collberg's songs have often been compared to those of John Lennon (by myself, included), and while there are still Lennonesque elements on the EP--on the descending-chord "Behind the Glass," especially--Collberg seems to be finding his own voice. (It should be noted that he's still very young.) The shuffling "Oh God, It's Not the Same" features the kind of heavily reverbed guitar found on old rockabilly recordings, though it's far removed from rockabilly; "Nobody Looks Like I" manages to be both plaintive and uplifting, and contains a wordless chorus that's just plain beautiful; and "I Don't See You Coming Back This Time" is what Elliott Smith would have sounded like had he managed to stay happy long enough to write a sunny pop song with handclaps.
Collberg is heading out on tour in August, and he's taking locals the Fell City Shouts with him. The group includes the American Black Lung's Dusty Rhodes and singer Brittany Dawn. Based on the demo CD we received, don't expect anything remotely similar to ABL's hard 'n' heavy mix of punk, metal, garage rock and blues. For the Fell City Shouts, Rhodes mostly sings in a gritty, bluesy Tom Waits-ian rasp, which is juxtaposed with Dawn's lovely, soulful voice. A press release describes them as "a roots band that lands somewhere in the middle of Tom Waits, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Townes Van Zandt," and I'd have to agree with that assessment.
This one gets rolling at 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 1, at Solar Culture Gallery, 31 E. Toole Ave. All ages are welcome, and cover is a measly $5. Call 884-0874 for more information.
Congratulations to Toxic Ranch Records on its 20th anniversary!