The Hold Steady, The Stone Pony, New Jersey 19.01.07

The Hold Steady, The Stone Pony, New Jersey 19.01.07

Luke Bainbridge sees the acclaimed pretenders to Springsteen's throne reinvigorate rock'n'roll on his home turf.

It's a bitter Friday night on the beach front of Asbury Park, the wind whipping in off the Atlantic across Ocean Avenue, prompting the kids queuing outside the Stone Pony to rub their hands and huddle in a vain attempt to ward off the cold.

Inside there's a heady air of expectation, many of the crowd having made the pilgrimage to the New Jersey venue made famous by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band to see the group lauded by many as the pretenders to the Boss's throne. The next boss thing, if you will.

In 'Stuck Between the Stations', the opening and standout track from the Hold Steady's third album, Boys And Girls in America, singer Craig Finn muses that 'there are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right; boys and girls in America had such a sad time together'. Presumably, these are not the nights when he and his band are holding court. Hold Steady gigs are unashamed celebrations of rock'n'roll. Factor in the plaudits since last year's Boys and Girls (Blender made them its Band of the Year and Rolling Stone asked, 'How can any band be this good?'), and the fact that this is a spiritual homecoming of sorts, and 'a sad time together' it does not make.

A group of over-excited female fans squeeze in next to me at the bar. 'Can I get two Grateful Deads?' one asks the bartender.

'I don't know what that is. Where you girls from?'


'You see, when you cross the stateline, you gotta know what your ingredients are ... '

'Do you do Blackouts?'


'Just give me something strong and fruity.'

It's that kind of night.

The Stone Pony is no architectural wonder but it has a rich rock history. Think an American version of the 100 Club, but three times the size. On one wall is a huge mural of the picture postcard cover of Springsteen's debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. Another is adorned with signed guitars from visiting rock dignitaries including Patti Smith and Joan Jett, as well as New Jersey's favourite rock sons Steve Van Zandt, Jon Bon Jovi and, of course, the ubiquitous Springsteen.

Backstage, the Hold Steady recline on battered sofas in the dressing room and talk about last night's gig in New York. 'It was pretty wild,' laughs Finn. 'New York audiences are usually a little more reserved, but they were pretty crazy.' He describes an over- exuberant mosh pit that took no prisoners. 'A friend of ours came out with a big black eye,' chuckles guitarist Tad Kubler.

Finn and Kubler are childhood friends from Minnesota's outlying suburbs. In the early Nineties, inspired by local heroes the Replacements and Husker Du, they formed a band called Lifter Puller, whose angular guitar sound predated the Eighties revival of the early Noughties but never really reached a wider audience. After three albums the band split and Finn moved to New York. Kubler followed shortly after, and the two soon felt the itch to form another band, recruiting fellow Minnesotans Galen Polivka on bass and Bobby Drake on drums, and adding mustachioed Franz Nicolay from Brooklyn on keyboards. As Finn admitted on the opening track of their 2004 debut album Almost Killed Me: 'I was bored when I didn't have a band.'

The Hold Steady are not fashionable, musically or sartorially, but they're unapologetic about the fact, setting their stall out right from the start. 'All you sniffling indie kids, hold steady,' Finn declares. 'We're going to start it with a positive jam.'

They're such an unassuming bunch that when they return from an aborted pre-gig photoshoot on the beach and make their way through the venue, there's only a ripple of recognition from the assembling audience. And as if it's not cold enough, OMM's photographer then takes the band into the walk-in beer cooler to shoot them. 'Gives a whole new meaning to "chillin' at the Stone Pony"!' cracks the bartender.

Finn is engaging, erudite company, willing and able to converse on anything from his love of baseball's Minnesota Twins to John Berryman, or Jack Kerouac's On the Road, from which their latest album takes its title ('Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they go straight to sex without time for real talk - I want to talk about souls').

He may be in his mid-thirties, with the attendant middle-aged spread, but Finn's narratives deal with the listless lives of lost teenage souls. His lyrics are tales of American wasted youth, writ large, told through three characters - Holly, aka Hallelujah, Charlemagne, and Gideon. Holly is trying to find a balance between Catholicism and rock'n'roll, Charlemagne pulls street corner scans, and Gideon is a stoner who smokes a pipe 'made from a Pringles can'.

Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem compared Finn to the avant-garde American poet John Ashbery, saying: 'There's an associative, punning surrealist tendency that is always grounded in the vagaries of a mind finding voice in the present moment.' For his part, Finn still seems pleasantly surprised fans and critics alike are paying such attention and studying his lyrics so intently after so long.

If Finn is the brains, Kubler is the brawn behind the Hold Steady, building a solid foundation of towering riffs around which Finn weaves his narratives. The guitarist grew up listening to a diet of solid rock, teaching himself to play along to Cheap Trick and AC/DC records. As he himself admits: 'We're not reinventing rock music here. We're just trying to carry on a tradition that has always been in our lives.'

All of which makes the Hold Steady a perfect Friday night band in the great American blue-collar rock'n'roll tradition. As they take to the small stage, Finn delays his entrance slightly and is greeted like an all-American hero. The Hold Steady don't hold back, launching straight in with 'Positive Jam' and then 'Stuck Between Stations', and the party pit is already jumping. Kubler's guitar is the driving force, his juggernaut riffs backed by a tight rhythm section, while Nicolay's keys add a touch of lightness. Refreshingly, they have no qualms about showing they're enjoying themselves as much as their audience. 'When I'm playing, all I think about is, "This is a good time!"' says Kubler.

The enthusiasm is infectious; Kubler showboating and swinging his guitar round his neck, Polivka leaning back almost at a 45 degree slant at points. Finn, meanwhile, is a man transformed, smiling and sweating his way through the set, his words stumbling and rolling over themselves in sheer excitement. It's a pretty relentless two-hour set, with two long encores. During the second encore, Finn declares, 'There's so much joy in what we do up here, I wanna share that joy with all of you.' Some well prepared Hold Steady fans hand out confetti in the middle of the crowd, throwing it, joyously, during the final song in homage to the current album cover. And with that the boys and girls of America spill out, elated, into the New Jersey air. Not such a bad time together.

· The Hold Steady play The Borderline, London Febraury 18 (sold out), Fibbers, York (20), Sheffield Leadmill (21), Birmingham Academy (23), Bristol Academy 2 (24), Oxford Zodiac (25), London Astoria (26), Dublin Temple Bar Music Centre (27).


Luke Bainbridge

The GuardianTramp

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