The Hold Steady with the Whigs
Google once again confirmed what I already knew to be true: I am not the first person to compare Craig Finn to a preacher. Phooey to you Google. Sure it’s an obvious metaphor (The Hold Steady’s last album is called Heaven is Whenever for god’s sake), but arm’s outstretched, fingers tingling in an act of pure Pentecostal parroting, it’s the first thing you think.
Usually, such obvious metaphors are a sign of laziness. But sometimes they’re not. Many people have called Bob Dylan the poet of his generation. This is probably because the guy had great lyrics. However, he also stopped using Zimmerman and very consciously decided to name himself after Dylan Thomas. He thought of himself as a poet: to not bring this fact up denies a big part of who he was.
Likewise, I’m pretty sure Craig Finn thinks of himself as a preacher. It’s not just some writer’s obvious metaphor. It’s more like a job description.
On stage, pacing back and forth, Finn makes sure he directs his sermon toward all corners of his House, which for this evening, Tuesday, July 6th, is the Slowdown. Speak-singing in his usual style, he sometimes wanders away from the microphone, though remains unceasing in his vocal delivery. He implores the audience to sing along; they happily agree.
Was it all a little emo? Sure. But The Hold Steady toes a few genres, and begrudging a sing along would be begrudging the single thing most fans like about the band. Finn’s erudite lyrics have a special quality, like all great rock verse, seeming to ring a little more true when backed by guitars and rhythm.
Plus, preaching to the converted makes things easier. For example:
You can posture like a rock star even though you wear the plaid shirt, close-cropped hair, and the thick rimmed glasses of a Borders employee.
You can expect a Dashboard Confessional like response (going so far as to rely on the crowd for the backing vocals to "Chips Ahoy!") even though a good portion of the audience is, like you, in their mid 30s.
You can take the inherent cheesiness of Bruce Springsteen’s lesser songs (a guy who appeared on more than one t-shirt this evening), and the inherent vocal limitations of a band like Hüsker Dü (who you’ve stated was big a influence, and who seem at least partially reincarnated in the sound of your opener, The Whigs), and somehow fuse them together into a melodic package that people take seriously.
You can eschew traditional fan favorites in the second half of a front loaded set and replace audience banter, of which there is almost none, with an awkward, giddy dance, hopping happily about like Jesus was in your tennis shoes.
You can do all this and still have enough charisma to front a rock band, throwing in sex, drugs, and religion, new songs with old, a sound that hardly changes album to album, song to song, a replaced keyboardist and a touring guitarist (really? You really need three on stage guitars?), and…you can get away with it.
You can just be the frontman to the solid bar band you always wanted to play in, performing across America, preaching to the masses. You can spread the message because somehow it just works. Just like some things always have.