Liking The Hold Steady is not going to get you laid. All the indie vampires consider them passé or, worse, a novelty band, and girls in Kings of Leon hoodies have not heard of them. You can put on “The Swish” at a party, but someone will hit skip when it becomes evident that it doesn’t have a chorus, at which point two dudes in the corner will go “Aww!” They will be the oldest guys at the party. The Hold Steady is late-twenties music, about weird keggers and not going to certain clubs anymore and the uncertainty that starts to creep into a life spent listening to bands like The Hold Steady. It is for people who have already been through a Xanax thing. It is for guys who know where to get High Life in cans and will bring the High Life in cans to your party and drink it on the porch while wearing metal shirts, despite the fact that they are totally like 30. In other words, The Hold Steady is for people who have not yet given up on life. They’re for people who like rock, not because it’s cool—since it really isn’t anymore, given how old it is and how old we are—but because it rocks. Last night they brought their yelling, guitar soloing, whoa-ing show to The Filling Station in Bozeman, Montana, and 50 college kids came out to see them, plus 300 people who were suspiciously old to be drinking on a Tuesday night.
Craig Finn wore a blue button-down dress shirt, as if he wasn’t sure whether we were just hanging out or going on a date. He is 38, kind of pudgy and kind of balding, and his excited facial expressions and “Dancing In the Streets”-era Mick Jagger arm movements made him look like a man singing in his bedroom while imagining himself to be the frontman for The Hold Steady. More often than not, keyboardist Franz Nicolay mouthed the words, too. Dressed like a carnival operator in a David Lynch flashback and sporting a handlebar mustache, he was actually the hippest-looking person onstage—a title he periodically threatened to undercut by drinking from a bottle of red wine. These are people who own Moleskine notebooks. They are not the vaguely exciting posers of garage rock or the coked and ethereal Asperger’s cases of New York indie. The Hold Steady is not part of any discernible movement. Craig Finn is not a hipster, or a punk, or a mod or whatever else is cool this year. He is not an ironist. He is the man who wrote, “She came into the E.R. / drinking gin from a jam jar, / and the nurse was making jokes about the E.R. being like an after-bar,” and he enjoys the authority of the truth.
The Hold Steady does not need to be cool, because A) Finn’s lyrics evoke the feeling of having already been cool and not liking it and B) they rock. If you were standing in The Filling Station during the opening chords of “Constructive Summer,” you could either jump up and down or not have a good time—your choice. Everybody picked number one. For the next ninety minutes The Hold Steady crashed through song after song, Finn stepping away from the microphone again and again despite the crowd’s near-total failure to sing for him, a greatest-hits set of songs that were all, as Jason McMackin puts it, About Me. “In bar light / she looked all right. / In daylight / she looked desperate. / That’s all right—I was desperate, too,” goes the chorus to “Sequestered in Memphis.” There’s a shout-along bridge to that one, too, and its ridiculous specificity—subpoenaed…in Texas! sequestered…in Memphis!—subtracted nothing from the feeling that we had all been there. Craig Finn’s great gift as a lyricist is his ability to make the lives of his fictional hood rats and born-again burnouts seem like your life, and The Hold Steady’s great gift as a band is to make you sing about it with them.
I am 32 years old, so I feel a little weird at the rock show. When I used to go see punk and ska* shows every week in bars where you didn’t dare drink from your beer within thirty feet of the stage for fear of losing your front teeth, back when I was twenty, I never felt out of place. I felt cool, or what passes for cool in an MU330 shirt and combat boots surrounded by other newly-liberated nerds in MU330 shirts and combat boots. Now when I go to shows I feel like I’m visiting my little sister at college—wise and worldly, sure, but also creepy and apologetic. Sorry, I want to say to everyone, you are youthful and attractive. I used to be like you. Last night at The Filling Station I didn’t feel embarrassed. I just felt smart. When Craig Finn sang about how boys and girls in America have such a sad time together, I felt like I had already been there. He’s 38 years old and he’s got a band full of middle-aged dorks much like himself, and they are not really cool but they know stuff and they rock. It’s a good trade to make, actually, and if you don’t believe it The Hold Steady will be more than happy to prove it to you.