Sammy the Seal

“There is so much joy in what we do up here on stage…”

In vinyl on Friday, 8 August, 2008 at 14:08

If only more bands had as much honesty and ability to back up this statement. I’m finally able to write about The Hold Steady again, since I saw them Wednesday night again, but I don’t know what more I can say having already written about them and seen them previously. I don’t know if they end every show with “Killer Parties”, but they did both times I was there, and during the coda of that song, lead singer Craig Finn utters this line, usually preceded by some stuttering, then “…I’m just gonna say it. I know we say this every night, but…” and followed by “thank you for coming to share this joy with us tonight.” Now that I remember, he did say it last time. The awkwardness with which he declares this now seems a little calculated, but no less sincere.

Yes, it was another hot, sweaty, bouncy, sing-a-long show, where I felt like I was going to collapse about four or five songs in. When you’re not going crazy, you’re trying to conserve energy and catch your breath— lip-syncing, rather than shouting and singing along. I can’t say it was better than the last one, only because that was a virginal experience, but it wasn’t worse at all. They did play some songs I didn’t hear the last time that I was hoping for. I also realized I’m getting old 🙂 I recall an old interview where one of the guys said that in their younger days of the band and other bands, they would go out and party late after shows, but these days, they just want to go to their hotel and get some sleep. Feels like me. I’m in great shape, but I don’t think I have the time and energy to go to late shows all the time. It took me two nights of sleep to recover (though I did work the next day). My neck and back hurt the morning after each show. Odd, because my body doesn’t feel old, and I even lost a few pounds recently.

But the fact that I was trying to keep up during the show is a credit to the band as well. You find yourself hoping for a ballad, something slower, so you can rest for five minutes. If I hadn’t mentioned it already, it’s fascinating to me because everyone in the group is in their late-30s. I love that the audience is mostly normal people, lots of middle-aged people, average looking, not too many hip, early-20s types. This band really does weed out the cool from the trying to be cool. I don’t think anyone interested in the pursuit of cool would take to this band. There’s no angle to the band, and save for Franz the keyboardist, no “look” they’re going for. Very normal-looking, without resorting to thrift or vintage stores. All you need to do is see the lead singer thrash about and hold his arms open and dance all weird on stage to know that being cool is meaningless to him. His glasses were flung from his face once as he was convulsing and jiving during one song, that was incredible. So much energy and excitement (and sweat, understandably) that your glasses fly off your face. That’s passion, folks.

It’s heartening for me, as someone who refuses to settle in to middle age, that people only a little older than me can retain such vitality and a positive outlook on life (the title of the new record, fittingly, is Stay Positive). It’s not all wan platitudes though, as you can see the stories and lives of the characters in the songs are anything but safe and happy. Granted, I have no connection to the partying, druggy, nomadic youths of the characters in Mr. Finn’s songs, but I do connect to the approach of coming out of youth and entering middle age, and dealing with it with strength and energy, rather than reservation. I’ll be the first to admit their sound isn’t expansive and adventurous, but I think if it were, it wouldn’t be the same band. With each record, all the elements are a little tighter, and there are small touches of experimenting, but nothing too artsy. But, lines like “we are our only saviors”, “we could all be something bigger”, and “we make our own movies” work because of the music, the enthusiasm, the stories the songs are built on, and most importantly, the sincerity. You don’t expect people to be able to say these things and mean it and you be moved or even inspired by them, not in this, the age of irony and disaffection.

I’m too lazy to find another interview, here’s the old one I’ve already posted. Here are a couple of snippets that explain what I’m trying to say, by Mr. Finn himself.

“I think if [the band is] a reaction against anything, it’s a reaction against everything in indie rock that just isn’t fun. I’ve said this in other interviews, but this kid said that he went to all these shows that year and us and the Drive-By Truckers were the only two bands that smiled. I thought that’s a bad thing. It’s a sad state of affairs if that’s true.”

And:

“I think we have a good time playing, and that gets contagious to the audience. They have a good time, too. These are heavy times politically in the world, so I hope when people come to our show that they really feel awesome for two hours. And probably not feel so good the next day.”

Once again, the show lived up to his promise. And finally, from a review of the last record (just go to metacritic and read the first five or so reviews, not because I’m trying to convert you even though I think it may very well be their best, but because they give a good perspective of the band as well as part of the history in the records)

“Well, my heroes are people like Joe Strummer and Bruce Springsteen. People who make you feel anything’s possible, that rock music, for instance, can be real big and important. You can’t put words on what it’s like to see Springsteen in concert – it’s so huge, so big. Do I believe in the redemptive power of rock’n’roll? Absolutely. At its peak, played with the best intentions, it can be transcendent.”

It all reminds me of what Cameron Crowe has said about some of the characters in his films: the concept of optimism as a revolutionary act.

“Stay Positive is a true testament that good music will always prevail. One can only hope that a band like this will continue to make music for years and years to come because we desperately need it.”

Now, more than ever, it’s absolutely necessary. It gives you a glimmer of hope that somewhere, some people still believe in quality and beauty and life, and some people do still care about stuff, even if it’s just putting on a solid show for the fans. All in all, not a bad way to ring in your 30th birthday a week early. Thanks, guys.

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