The Hold Steady – Norman – Opolis, Oklahoma – 2007-06-12

The Hold Steady
Where: Norman – Opolis, Oklahoma.

When: 2007-06-12

“She got screwed up by religion
She got screwed by soccer players
She got stoned for the first time in the camps down by the Mississippi River
Lord to be seventeen forever

She got confused about the truth
She came to in a confession
She got high for the last time on the camps on the banks of the rivers
Lord to be 33 forever”

–Craig Finn, The Hold Steady “Stevie Nix”

“Heavenly God! Cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy. He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him…A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”

–James Joyce “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

She got screwed up by her vision
It was scary when she saw him
She didn’t tell a single person about the paths along the Mississippi River
Lord to be seventeen forever

–Craig Finn, The Hold Steady “Stevie Nix”

Beauty rejected and beauty accepted. I don’t know Craig Finn, but something tells me he saw a vision once that led him down that always diminishing and replenishing road of being an artist.

If poetry is a vessel, then some age old Irish themes (drinking, religion, repenting) have certainly come back strong with The Hold Steady. If these stories were always in the air, waiting for someone to find the right words and grab them and mold them in their own way, Craig Finn has found his own New York poetry with a bar band that gives the poetry some wheels and rock and roll resonance.

The girl in “Stevie Nix” didn’t accept her vision, and dammit she suffered, a choice contrary to the human condition. We all find ourselves a little screwed up sometimes, and it’s probably because we want something lost or left in a river. Craig Finn’s tragedies usually end in young people getting stuck in the bars.

Many characters in Finn’s bawdy fictions look for the instant high, the simple place to score, looking for that moment, trying to get it back. In relation to Joyce’s life story, the Catholic church is the opposing force in pretty much all activities that today’s youth view as fun – drugs, sex and rock n roll. And one’s experience with a serious Catholic upbringing leads to an amplified party existence in later years if the person leaves the clergy track.

Because Finn writes the way he does, about the people he does, The Hold Steady’s music (“Almost Killed Me” “Separation Sunday” and “Boys and Girls and America”) have felt like the first truly rock and roll albums to come out in some time: big guitars, earnest deliver, punk vocal chords, vivid stories, drugs, kids.

The Hold Steady comes at you from an escaped confession booth like a prayer purified by marijuana smoke, like a sermon possessed by Benzedrine and read by a whore, like a vision on a beach somewhere of a pale, serene woman or a woman on the Mississippi he chose not to follow the river. Like great authors who have grown up in the Catholic church, Craig Finn has chosen to create life out of life instead of fearing the clutches of the unworldly.

But the spell of Catholic rhetoric never leaves his verses where beat poetry, druggers and shady characters mingle with the language and people of the bible, the language that few Catholic authors can escape. The Hold Steady gloriously soils it with the wreckage of their own rock n roll lives –“you in the corner with a good looking drifter/two cups of coffee/ten packs of sugar/I heard Gedeon saw you in Denver/ he said you‘re contagious“.

When critics thank Thin Lizzy, Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements for The Hold Steady they should also be thanking the Virgin Mary.

It’s the language that makes the stories worth listening to and it invigorates the stories these authors tell with a lust for life evident in the all-night rocking of Brooklyn’s Hold Steady, the string band stampede sound of The Pogues or the magic in the words of Yeats’ “The Wind Among the Reeds.”

All of this hyperbole no doubt covers up how comfortable a setting The Hold Steady draws live.

Craig Finn sounds louder than Bruce Springsteen, and as a result he sounds taller than he appears live in his polyester blue and white Adidas sports shirt. He looks Gnomic and happy as hell onstage – somewhere between the journalist Joe Klein and Elvis Costello.

His poetry matched the bawdy guitar chords of Tab Kubler and classic piano solos. “Charlemagne” opens with an organ that sounds like a casio mocking the pompous pipe organs of century old chapels. They do baptize their audiences with songs perfect for beer.

Sunday June 12 at Opolis in Norman, Oklahoma the crowd was mostly young kids, kids just freshly influenced by music that stands at odds with messages the strips of churches in this town. But The Hold Steady also skirt the proselytizing of Web site and bloggers today. Their sound is not a soft one.

When Sufjan Stevens and Animal Collective fans flock to a Hold Steady album, they will most likely be disappointed by that abrasive voice and that E Street guitar sound. There’s no subtlety or irony, just beer worship rock.

To the outside observer a Hold Steady show is hedonism. To observers of American culture, The Hold Steady fits a mold of great American performers. They sweat, they uniformly medicate themselves with bottled Budweisers (they all drank them), they work hard and play for hours, they’re loud, their poetry comes from experience, the guitar riffs reach classic rock proportions, their music hits the road, lyrics shun time.

Like Joyce intended to do with his Dublin stories and dreamscapes, The Hold Steady did with Separation Sunday. Their songs drew map of their beloved, home, Brooklyn, where “everyone is a critic or a DJ,” Finn told the Norman audience.

While doing this in Hold Steady’s concept albums characters appear, disappear and reappear like a friend holed up for a while in his cheap apartment saying he’s “figuring shit out.” In aesthetic art so many vibrant persons get lost: those poor souls who beat up school kids, get strung out, and those tough bastards who accidentally expose poetry in the way they talk shit and the way they live their lives. When art forgets about these people, then it’s not doing its job. And that’s why half of the crowd knew every word to the songs.

Whether the crowd knew it or if they just wanted to rock (and rock and bump and bop they did) it’s hard to say. But the band who commanded their attention had done a lot of living and the road is now their reward. There is a reason they were invited to play with Bruce Springsteen at a recent tribute concert.

Finn yells his lyrics like the last guy at the bar trying to get someone to listen to his favorite passage from On The Road. After keyboardist Franz Nicolay took a shot of Jameson Irish whiskey Finn got going.

“There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right/’Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together.”

Finn sang to the ghosts of the Beat generation on “Stuck Between Stations” with gusto that never waned through the “Separation Sunday” material and the excellent “Southtown Girls.”

One group of fans had been following The Hold Steady for four states and the band already had conversation ready to crack open with them. If the groupies (all ball capped males) were any indication, The Hold Steady give the same kind of all-out performance every night.

A ten-year-old child made his way to the front of the crowd (always compact in a space that should never hold more than 72 people) thanks to some generosity on the crowd’s part. By the end of the set Finn couldn’t help but to declare little Curtis, as well as the rest of the crowd, part of The Hold Steady, reminding one of Morrissey’s penchant for letting fans onstage and telling all security guards to screw off.

A band so influenced by giants (the James Joyce thing may be a stretch, but a cosmic reality to this writer) has impressively managed to keep a punk vibe on their loud fictions and live the experience is communal– kids coming on stage, playing guitar, dancing with Finn. Many know the words by now. This point in The Hold Steady’s career, hype can do no more and the rest is in their hands.

And if the desolation angels of Brooklyn keep visiting Finn in his hangovers, then we should just be waiting in line to buy him another beer.