Music Features

The Hold Steady, Live in Syracuse, NY

Craig Finn is not tall. For some reason this surprised me. The man has a big voice and is a commanding presence on the Hold Steady records, so I automatically assumed he would swagger onto the stage, standing 6 foot 4, holding a microphone in one hand and a frosty mug in the other. Instead, he appeared to be the shortest guy in the band, was quite possibly sober, and is by all available evidence, a genuinely unassuming and charming guy.

Yet he's still a commanding presence. The guy is clearly in control and having a blast. He smiles uncontrollably as he spastically spits his lyrics at the audience, looking each of them directly in the eye, evincing a confidence and engagement that I find refreshing. The Springsteen comparisons have been beat to death, but I've been to several Bruce shows and this is one of the things that keeps me coming back. Finn has his own approach and isn't quite the dynamic performer Springsteen is (who is?), but he clearly wants you to hear the stories he's telling and he's taking his tales to YOU, not the other way around. As if to emphasize his point, he frequently repeats the line he just sang write at members of the audience, off the microphone. This guy loves his lyrics, and he has every right to.

The audience of mainly college students at Syracuse University started out respectfully receptive and ended up wildly enthusiastic, won over by Finn and his band. He stopped the show at one point to claim he had "just one thing to say", which was ironic given the verbosity in his songs, and proceeded to simply state that there was so much joy in what they do and thanks for sharing it. Simple and plainly genuine. You could see it on their faces. This band is having a good old time playing the music they've written, almost as if they were surprised how good it was.

The show was not long, or didn't seem long, which was a wise move considering that at this point they are a one note band (maybe one and a half if you count the few new ballads they've cut). This is a bar band pure and simple and their live sound is their album sound. The band's performance was flawless behind Finn and the only obvious mistake of the night was Finn's own, as he came in a second too early after the acappella intro to South Town Girls. He laughed it off along with the audience, who were already well under his sway.

Another flash I had back to the Springsteen shows was the prevalence of kids in the audience who knew all the lyrics to all the songs. Finn shares the early Springsteen's sense of the romanticism of dead-end teenage life, and he is currently writing the ongoing story of kids finding and/or rejecting Jesus, partying too hard, and looking for love and meaning "down by the banks of the Mississippi river". These kids are likely to evolve into young adults and I expect the story to get more interesting as it goes on. I saw the hunger for the mythic in these kids, fists head held high, shouting back in Finn's face in communal rejoicing. I'm just glad someone is carrying on the tradition.