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The Hold Steady in Concert

Josef Kuhn | Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When The Hold Steady and the Drive-By Truckers played at the Riviera Theater in Chicago last Friday night, the Windy City seemed anything but tired. The two bands comprised the “Rock and Roll Means Well” tour, and they proved that rock music is still alive and kicking.The crowd may have seemed a bit heavy with paunchy, 30-something men, but there was no lack of youthful energy in this small concert venue. All the high school and college aged kids were up in the front, pounding their fists in the air and shouting along to the choruses, while the more reserved older crowd stayed back closer to the bar but seemed to enjoy themselves no less. The crowd’s diversity was a testament to the widespread appeal of these two bands. Their straightforward rock and roll styles and truthful lyrics cross the gaps of generation, race, and gender.The Drive-By Truckers, who played first, have a southern-tinged rock sound, but their songs transcend the usual subjects of girls, booze and tractors. They kept the crowd on its toes with the interchange of three lead vocalists, two male and one female and with a surprisingly varied set of songs. One minute they would be playing a mellow country jam, and then in a flash they were bringing the lights down with a hard guitar rocker. The guitar solos hearkened back to a day when music was heartfully performed, not just synthesized.As fun as the Drive-By Truckers were, though, the show was stolen by The Hold Steady and their vibrant front man, Craig Finn. The Hold Steady plowed through a set that consisted mainly of their most powerful rock anthems, only relenting for a few brief songs. Although short and somewhat nerdy looking in his black-rimmed glasses, Craig Finn spat out his lyrics in his usual gruff drawl, a voice that didn’t seem to match his body. He was constantly dancing and moving around, doing funny little tap dance numbers on the stage when he had nothing else to do. More than anything, he never seemed to stop smiling. He was obviously having the time of his life, which he attested to at the end of the show, yelling, “There is so much joy in what we do!”This kind of exuberance is perhaps what sets the Hold Steady apart from and above most other rock groups today. While the songs touch on the hardships of life and the darker side of human nature, their message is overwhelmingly hopeful. The name of the band and the title of their last album – “Stay Positive” – are clear enough. Finn, the lyrical genius behind the band, writes with a poetic preciseness about gritty places and beat-down people. His scope encompasses the often overlooked, uglier sides of both the city and the suburbs. He recognizes both the joy and the pain that can come from alcohol and drugs. Overall, his songs resonate with the uncanny feeling of truth. The Hold Steady’s vision is not one of destruction and impending disaster, but instead one of unification and rapport, especially among the youth. Finn’s message speaks directly to young people everywhere, and he earnestly believes that rock music can bring us all together and inspire us towards the path of positive progress.He reminds us that the direction that music takes, and the direction that we take at the start of this new millennium, is up to us.