In an interview with Terri Gross a couple of years back, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn fielded a question about lyrical allusions to the Catholic upbringing he shares with some of the songs’ characters. Gross phrased the question in such a way as to make clear that she expected a “spiritual but not religious” answer from Finn. She was surprised.
He said, “I don’t know if I’m that spiritual a person; I just like going to church. I wonder if I might [be] the opposite of Cat Stevens and then be too normal and end up watching too many baseball games and eating too many wings.”
Though the answer may be unusual for a rock star, it jibes well with Finn’s fixation with the seedy side of recognizable. His characters include addicts and losers, but they are the most pedestrian varieties: low-level gamblers getting high in motel rooms; dehydrated young adults hooking up in the first-aid tent at the festival; functional drunks whose dependency seems to hit them most in the ability to choose their friends.
Unlike the similar creations of the Beat writers (to whom Finn tips his hat, calling out Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise), though, these characters are not saintly in their excesses. Finn doesn’t punish them too harshly and he rarely seems to lay out any kind of final doom for them; but neither does he praise them for the way they self destruct. Perhaps that’s the Catholic in him, still: the awareness of the ubiquity (and, therefore, the unremarkable nature) of lapse and the ever-present possibility of eventual forgiveness.
Or perhaps it’s just the Springsteen influence.
In any event, the Hold Steady ply a type of solid, straight-ahead guitar-driven rock well-suited to the presentation of Finn’s slightly grimy character studies. The melodies are simple, relying as much on Finn’s distinct nasal bark as on any complexity. This can lend to a sameness of songs, if you don’t know the lyrics. But that was no problem, at all, for the crowd at the Hollow.
Finn is an energetic, ebullient and engagingly awkward presence on stage. His crowd work—in which he often turned refrains over to the audience entirely—was like the happiest hardcore, and the audience ate it up. The call-and-response participation made me think of old VFW shows, of chanted calls for youth unity. (The band’s fourth album was titled Stay Positive, for whatever that’s worth.) And if the crowd were a little longer in the tooth and a little wetter in the whistle than those x-handed audiences, they were a little less eager: They knew every word. It was an extremely partisan crowd, which made for a level of energy I haven’t seen in an Albany show in quite a while, and which I began to eat up myself. (Despite my minor quibbles that, while the band’s rhythm guitars were all knitted nicely, the leads were pro forma and pointless; and, plus, they didn’t play my favorite song.)
The show was opened by Cheap Girls, an indie-rock-style trio who evoked the early ’90s to an almost eerie extent. This was Lemonheads, Superchunk, GBV territory in a way that was extremely enjoyable and a little unsettling for someone who was around for it the first time.