“There are so many of these indie-rock shows that you go to that are so joyless. I just want people to feel this joy and celebratory nature of rock and roll when they come to see the Hold Steady. I mean I think I want our audience to kind of go into these shows and just be able to forget about their problem and everything, just lose themselves in the music.” –Craig Finn
This quote opens the new Hold Steady documentary, A Positive Rage (Vagrant Records) and everything that comes after it makes it clear that Finn and colleagues have accomplished their mission.
The film traces the Hold Steady’s Boy and Girls in America tour, which began in October, 2006. The first appearance that we see it at the Borderline in London, but our look at the tour proper begins with sold-out shows at Emo’s in Austin. Make no mistake, this is not a concert film. There is plenty of music, but it’s mostly short clips from various clubs along the way. No attempt has been made to clean up or remix the sound. It’s all exactly the way that the cameras captured it — decidedly, proudly low-fi.
It’s clear that the music footage is there to give the viewer a touchstone, but of equal importance is the testimony of fans and band members, most noticeably Finn, and keyboard player Franz Nicolay.
“We’re not matinee idols. We’re not 20 years-old. We don’t wear tight pants,” Nicolay continues. “We’re not writing easy pop hits about ‘baby, baby, baby I love you.’ We’re writing grown people’s songs about grown people’s things, even when we’re writing about teenagers.”
If you read my coverage of the recent SXSW, you know that the Hold Steady just blew me away, and were by far my favorite band at the festival. The thing is, they played three or four other gigs while they were in town, and I know people that went to the other gigs. Their reactions were universally the same as mine: People just didn’t like these shows — it was like religion. As one fan says in the film, “most people think that rock and roll can’t say your soul. I think most of those people haven’t seen the Hold Steady.” Since returning from Austin, a thought has been running through my mind over and over again. I’m not sure how much it means these days, but is the Hold Steady now the world’s great rock and roll band? You know, that title that the Stones held for years? I’m inclined to respond in the affirmative.
It’s the rare music documentary that captures a band just as they approach their peak. Many of the great films, The Last Waltz, or Stop Making Sense, for example, find bands at or near the end of their careers. Obviously those films are proof that there’s nothing at all wrong with that, but there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing a band that’s not quite there yet, but is clearly on their way. It’s been 18 months since this film was shot, and we now know that the Hold Steady have delivered on all of the promise in A Positive Rage.
“I would walk through hell in a gasoline suit to see the Hold Steady.” –a fan paraphrases Pete Rose
It’s no secret that the Hold Steady are not young kids. These are guys in their 30s, in some cases well into their 30s. As drummer Bobby Drake remarks, “we’re all kind of past the point where we all probably should have given up on it.” And yet this band has managed to capture the hearts and minds of people of various ages, and they actually find their audience getting younger as they go along. They are clearly still thrilled, even moved, by their success. You can just tell how chuffed they are to be playing at, and selling out, clubs like the Metro in Chicago, a club they went to as fans, and particularly First Avenue in their hometown of Minneapolis. This stuff means a lot to them. May it always be so.
As the tour, and the film, comes to an end, we are shocked to be reminded that these are guys who have to go back to their jobs in three days. Hopefully they don’t have to work day jobs anymore. They should be spending all of their time making music.
This two-disc package also includes a live audio recording of one of the Cabaret Metro shows in Chicago. Again, nothing fancy, just the music, presented as it was played, and all the more powerful for it. There’s also a typically insightful essay by Finn on his memories of the tour, written two years after it ended.
The Hold Steady is a band that you want to root for. They write songs that people can identify with, and they never put themselves above their fans. We need more bands like them.
Here are the Hold Steady performing “Stuck Between Stations” on Letterman at the end of the tour. This is not part of the film:
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