This is not really a review about what the Hold Steady sounded like, we know that right? If ever there was band that has stayed true to their sound, their ethos, then it is the Hold Steady. Bashing it out in an empty Brooklyn Bowl they sounded like themselves, like they have done every time they have set foot on stage before and, we would assume, every time they will do so again in future; plenty more, we are hoping. This is a review of the experience of watching them remotely, sat in my house, with a community of other THS nuts, sat in their houses.
Let’s be honest though. These undemonstrative, salt of the earth, blue collar types (the band not the crowd) are not the most visually engaging live spectacle, and they don’t make much (any!) additional effort to up the flair tonight, fair play to them for that. Craig Finn is his usual engaging but slightly dowdy ‘soccer dad’ who looks like he took a wrong turn on the school run and ended up on stage by accident. They seem to be doing their best to be excited, but essentially it is the Hold Steady on stage, doing what they do and, as always, doing it brilliantly.
They deliver literate, compassionate and thoroughly anthemic heartland rock’n’roll with a commitment to the cause that is magnificently commendable and admirably anachronistic. The one tiny gripe remains, as it has since first falling under their spell 15 years ago, that we’re just the odd ‘tune’ away from genuine genre greatness. If only Finn’s delivery could bring those missing melodies then they might have it all. Never mind though, sitting here watching them in our little private universe these are still our psalms and we are still compelled to sing-along with ‘Chips Ahoy’, ‘Massive Nights’, ‘Sequestered in Memphis’, ‘Stay Positive’ and the rest.
If there is any band extant that needs to (and absolutely can) take the circumstances dealt them by this pandemic SNAFU and create the sense of community, the ‘unified scene’, that sustains them and us, then it is the Hold Steady. As much as this actually is possible in such a weird setting, they manage it tonight and, really, we had expected nothing less. ‘Soccer Dad’, a true ‘frontman’ and pretty much the only one to speak from the stage, has never been embarrassed about effusive, over-sincere sentimentality as a means to connect with his audience and we get it, in spades, again tonight – “you know what I’m gonna say, so how about we say it together… all around the world… let’s just do it… there is SO MUCH JOY in what we do up here” – cut to 100s of tiny people on tiny screens waving tiny bits of paper with “So Much joy” scrawled on them. We all know the routine and we love it (and them) even more because of it.
In truth Finn’s exhortations perhaps felt a touch flat without a room full of true believers egging him on and soaking it up but it’s clearly unfair to criticise anyone for not engaging quite as well as usual from the stage of an empty, almost silent room. The tiny screens are the banks of monitors around the room showing people at home who have taken up the encouragement to “dance with us in the stream.” Finn says these monitors “help”, though with what exactly we’re not quite sure. He likes to see us singing and dancing and that’s great, so far so rock n roll. But he especially likes to see our pets… really?? Maybe he’s pointing the way to a post-pandemic shift in live music that nobody has yet foreseen; an escalation of canine gig going.
This Hold Steady annual weekender should have been at their UK ‘home’ venue the Electric Ballroom in Camden, so it is the Brit’s weekend after all. However this does not excuse the formulaic (some might say lazy) “Brit” images played out during set closer ‘Slapped Actress’. We get castles, a Union flag, bearskin hats, Stonehenge and the Palace of Westminster (thank goodness, no actual royals…). It’s almost like the director learned everything they know about us from a walk down Oxford St one rainy Tuesday afternoon. Surely they could have done better than that; these are not representations of the world that the unified scene in the UK relate to or identify with.
These images are just one of the elements that mark out this online gig as a distinct experience in its own right though. Time to own up, I am a committed non-streamer with a pre-judged disdain for watching live music on a screen in the corner of the home office and as such it feels important to convey something of the experience to those of you who may have a similar bias. The ‘bias’ runs like this. Live music is an affective communal experience. It touches our souls in a way that is beyond our rational, cognitive thought and in order to do this has to be shared in close proximity with lots of other like-minded souls, ideally in a loud, small, sweaty space. So far, so predictable but the key question was whether or not this bias is sustained or overturned by the experience on offer here. Well (cop out alert…) yes and no.
Easily the most affecting part of the experience comes as a real surprise and is something that is never likely to be a part of the other (real) live music experience. This is watching people dancing on their own little zoom screen, often attired more for bed than for rockin’ out and sometimes with their young kids who appear to be having a more unselfconscious good time than most of the adults present. The delight on the faces of the junior members of the scene a sharp contrast to parents who end up dancing like, well actually, the rest of the internet is watching them. Perhaps not so rock n roll then but a picture that is entirely in line with the community ethos of the Hold Steady.
Then there is the live chat box, like a running commentary to the gig, which is just odd. It would be fascinating to know if this is this what goes on in people’s minds at actual gigs. Wondering which is best; Saturday or Sunday matinee shows or musing on all the great bands produced by Scotland. Well don’t read it if you don’t like it then, you could reasonably suggest. Easier said than done though, it offers a compelling distraction from the main event and is maybe a sign that, no matter how good the band, this kind of event cannot engage like the real live thing does. See a band playing like this in a room with the rest of the scene and we are riveted to events on stage; the experience fills up our entire consciousness for that moment. Sat at home with them on the screen in the corner we are drawn away perhaps to a text notification, a new comment or even a strange noise in the kitchen; witness one of the zoom screens with a sleepy little girl and dad doing his emails whilst Finn is extolling the glory of pills and parties.
Watching this show it is clear that critical ‘rules’ for reviewing gigs are out of the window here, not just being able to watch the show as often as you want either. Part of the difficulty is that a bunch of stuff you might comment on is not present anymore and this makes the narrative of the event difficult to connect with, in the same way that band and production can struggle to find or follow the arc of their performance. It is possible to create interesting elements and touches to extend the experience but even if the core of it is excellent it never quite coalesces into the whole that excites us so much at a live gig.
We see the Hold Steady in ‘normal times’ and we are transported; here though there is not quite enough light and shade to demand our dynamic investment and there is not enough raw power, energy or crescendo to create the momentum that would usually carry us aloft to the end of the show. That said though, ultimately the experience did confirm my resolve to be in the room the next time they are in the UK so I guess that’s the one definitive, unfiltered and unmediated critical response that matters most.
Photography by David Gottlieb