It’s not terribly clear why The Hold Steady have decided to release A Positive Rage at this point in their history. Both the CD and DVD are taken from the American leg of the Boys and Girls in America tour, way back in fall of 2006 – too distant to be relevant, too recent to be retrospective. The Hold Steady circa April 2009 is a much different beast, and it can be hard to erase everything that’s happened in the ensuing years – the rapidly-expanding fanbase, the love-em-or-hate-em reception on the blogosphere. Oh, and there’s the little matter of another full-length album, Stay Positive, which is represented by a pre-release “Lord, I’m Discouraged” and b-side “Ask Her For Adderall.”
Not that there isn’t a market for a live Hold Steady record. The Brookyln-via-Minneapolis band’s group-hugged rock shows have won them fans from Williamsburg to Bonnaroo, and they have on more than one occasion found themselves on the year-end lists. The beauty of a Hold Steady show lies in being there, though. There’s the sweat and the beer, sure, but there’s the fact that the guy next to you, who you have probably never met, will have his arms over your shoulders by the end of the set and you’ll be singing “Stuck Between Stations” at the top of your lungs, not particularly caring about whether anyone else is watching, not caring about the fact that this dude is a little older and a little less “cool” than the people at the rock show last week.
And there are the words. There’s the fact that the words that you and your new friend are singing are about all of this, about the way that rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be, about the way that things have a tendency to get bloody and skinny, about reclaiming something that the 80s stole from us. The whole bar-band thing is nice enough, I guess, but it really only gets in the way of the fact that The Hold Steady are doing something that no one else in indie rock is doing: they’re staying positive.
To its credit, this is the brass ring towards which A Positive Rage reaches. The live CD, recorded at Chicago’s Metro on Halloween 2007, keeps the crowd abnormally high in the mix, lending credence to Craig Finn’s closing remark that “we are, and all of you are, The Hold Steady.” This is a live record in every sense of the word – Tad Kubler flubs a few notes, Finn’s vocals get weary by the end of the disc, and all of the between-song banter is left in. John Agnello mixes this record down until it sounds like a club. Which is not necessarily a virtue. Finn’s muddy vocals are slightly alienating, and the spots where he stops singing are confusing. Were we there, we’d see that Finn has stepped away from the mic and is shouting into the crowd. On disc, it just feels weird. The end product is something like watching The Hold Steady through the windows of a club; looks like a hell of a party, but I don’t feel for a second like I was there.
And while the A Positive Rage DVD goes a ways towards explaining The Hold Steady live show (breathless fan testimonials abound), there’s surprisingly little cogent concert footage. Instead, we are treated to clips of songs, breakaway snippets of what this thing feels like. And when the documentary slows down long enough to catch an entire song, it is, yes, breathtaking.
Where it succeeds, though, is in explaining the five members of The Hold Steady, painting them as five absolutely normal dudes. Even admittedly-eccentric gypsy punk keyboardist Franz Nicolay comes across with Midwestern aplomb as he pontificates on the band’s rising success and the effect their music has had on its listeners. And really, you couldn’t find a more unlikely set of guys: Finn just seems happy to be making people happy (“One of the things we’re hell-bent on is having a good time and communicating that we’re having fun playing music,” he says, and you’d have to work pretty hard to not believe him), Kubler is more pragmatic Midwestern father than guitar hero, and bassist Galen Polivka bobs his head around and chats happily with fans. Drummer Bobby Drake even sits on a couch between his parents backstage at Minneapolis’ First Avenue, burying his head in his shoulders while his dad tells embarrassing stories.
In this way, A Positive Rage is a success. Everything that The Hold Steady has been about is reestablishing the rock ‘n’ roll myth that on any given stage on any given night, any broken dude can play a song that means something bigger. It’s when the scenes get bigger that they get bloodier, and the kids get skinnier and everyone has to try a little harder to stay positive. But the guys on the stage – they know what’s going on. They know what they’re doing. And they’re just like you, and me, and anyone else trying their best to be honest about themselves. Being normal is what makes this music work, and it’s what’s made the Unified Scene swell at its ranks. So when Craig sputters his stock line about how much joy there is in what they do over the top of a ten-minute “Killer Parties” at the end of the CD, you’d have to be a cynic not to believe him. And if you are, chances are you didn’t make it to the party anyway; they didn’t even let you through the door. words/ m garner
Previously: Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) :: AD Interview, Pt 1 & 2
MP3: The Hold Steady :: The Swish (from Almost Killed Me)
Insound: The Hold Steady – A Positive Rage