A few years ago we were going to go see The Gaslight Anthem up the road in Asbury Park. Opening for Gaslight was The Hold Steady; at the time, I wasn’t all that familiar with them. I had heard of them but had not really heard them. You know how that can be sometimes. But either way, I like to be prepared, and knowing that I was going to the show, I decided to start doing some research. It was a wonderful experience.
Of course on the night of the show, it was raining some and we elected to hang at a nearby bar longer than expected and missed The Hold Steady’s set. It was not a wonderful experience. You know how that can be sometimes too.
No, that’s not entirely true. It wasn’t a bad night. Gaslight Anthem was great and it was good fun seeing them play what was essentially a home game. It’s just that over the course of my self-indoctrination of all things Hold Steady, I had become a pretty big fan of the band. By the time the night of the show rolled around, I was almost more excited to see them than Gaslight. But such is life, and in all fairness, the nearby bar’s food was delicious. And it had a roof. Hard to pass up that potent twofer.
Then a summer or two later, The Hold Steady came back to Asbury, this time co-headlining a show with Drive-By Truckers. Oddly enough, I wasn’t super up to speed with the Truckers and as was previously mentioned, I like to be prepared so I deep-dived into the Truckers’ catalog. I quickly became a fan of the band and with this show, I made sure that what happened the first time around didn’t happen this time. We caught both acts and it was a hell of a good time, a good time I was very well prepared for.
But this is about The Hold Steady and not about the Drive-By Truckers. There is no shortage of love for the Truckers here folks, it’s just that 2023 marks the 20th year The Hold Steady has been around and there is also plenty of love here for monumental anniversaries of which 20 years is one. If I could go back in time and celebrate the Truckers’ twentieth anniversary in 2016 I would in a heartbeat. But time travel seems like a luxury mainly for the rich so I’ll wait a few years and give the Truckers their due when they turn 30. It’ll be fantastic.
The Hold Steady came together in 2003 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, partially prompted by a desire to bring back some of that genuine rock purity purveyed by The Band back in the day. The following year they released their first album Almost Killed Me. The album’s first track, “Positive Jam” is a mission statement for the band, as well as a somewhat brief recap of everything that led to the point of Almost Killed Me. And by everything, I mean everything. The flappers in the 1920s, the stock market crash of the 1930s, life after war in the 1940s, and attempts at normalcy in the 1950s.
“Tripped right through the ’60s
With some blissful little hippie
Some Kennedys got shot
While you were screwing San Francisco
And the ’70s got heavy
We woke up on bloody carpets
Got tangled up in gas lines
And I guess that’s where it started
The ’80s almost killed me
Let’s not recall them quite so fondly
Some Kennedy OD’ed
While we watched on MTV
And in the ’90s we were wired and well connected
Put it all down on technology
And lost everything we invested”
By the time the song is winding down, Finn turns his attention to the present.
“All the sniffling indie kids
And all you clustered-up clever kids
And I got bored when I didn’t have a band
And so I started a band, man
We’re gonna start it with a positive jam”
That positive jam has since continued for twenty years.
Things really got going in 2006 with the release of the band’s third album Boys and Girls in America, an album Rolling Stone said was one of the best albums of the year. Hey, regardless of what you may think about Rolling Stone, it’s true. That album fucking rocks.
When doing any kind of retrospective on The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America is a treasure trove of classics as the album features so many songs that would become Hold Steady classics, songs like “Stuck Between Stations,” “Chips Ahoy,” “Hot Soft Light,” and “Massive Nights” among others. The album is an embarrassment of riches and is a true “we’re not fucking around here” album by the band.
Over the course of that first decade, The Hold Steady put out albums with an incredible workman clip, releasing six albums during that period, with most coming within a year or two after another. Their output matches the underlying intensity and overlying passion of Craig Finn’s vocals as he frequently sings songs as if his life depends on it. He doesn’t just want to tell the stories he’s looking to tell, he has to. It’s important. And while Finn’s unique style certainly isn’t for everyone, the people it’s for live for it. I lost track of the number of people I saw enthusiastically signing along at that show in Asbury; no easy task mind you. Singing along to The Hold Steady is akin to singing along to rapid-fire beat poetry and following along to the various melodic twist and turns is not just half the battle, but the thrill of the journey. A Hold Steady show is a garage rock revival with Finn serving as the fire-breathing preacher.
The music behind The Hold Steady has stayed true to the original plan to celebrate good old, foot-stomping rock ‘n roll. It’s at times vintage, 70s swaggering rock and at times, post-punkish rock that regardless of how you hear it makes you want to turn the volume up. It’s the music of joyful exuberance and celebration. The Hold Steady’s music isn’t for every situation but for the situations it does work for, it’s perfect. Perfect.
When you put “Massive Nights” on, it’s because you want to get the blood flowing and get the body moving and without fail, that’s exactly what the song does.
The band took some time off in the early part of the last decade but as far as breaks go, that’s about it. Their second decade was highlighted by residences, a few lineup changes, and a couple more albums. If there were any signs to be found that they had lost some zip on their fastball or were looking to take their foot off the pedal some, none could be found. In 2021, they released their eighth album, Open Door Policy and it had all the hallmarks of a Hold Steady album. The fire was still burning as decade number two started to wind down.
With The Hold Steady celebrating twenty years, it’d be easy to start to view them as the elder statesmen, vocal advocates of a life that has gotten long in the tooth. Yet even still, there is a youthful energy that remains and that continues to coarse through the veins of their songs. Gray hair and receding hairlines have done little to dull their sharpness and at this point, the energy that emanates from their music is a full-time member of the band. Twenty years is a long, long time for a band to stick together and for most that do, shifts, twists, and turns have happened and the band that emerges through the doorway of decade number 3 only partially resembles the young bucks who first crashed the party all of those years ago. It happens. It’s fine. In some cases, it’s the cost of doing business.
But that’s not really the case with The Hold Steady. They are who they are and are who they always have been. That’s not to say they haven’t grown or matured. They have. But they’ve done so within the friendly confines of that original mission statement. To play genuine rock was the goal and that’s what they’ve done for twenty years.
They started with a positive jam, carried on with a positive jam, and will continue to move forward with a positive jam.