Thursday, May 17, 2007

Rock n' Roll Reeducation

Finally, a few more words about the trip last weekend. A couple of months ago, we had gone to Harrisburg to see my brother-in-law in a play, and the place charmed us enough that we wanted to go back and explore it at a more leisurely pace. The more direct impetus for this go-round, though, was to see The Hold Steady, a band I've written about several times in the recent past. They were playing a free show at a local brewery to celebrate the establishment's 10th anniversary, and that just sounded like too good/weird an experience to pass up. And it was.

The reason it was good is easy to explain: The band put on what we agreed was one of the very best shows we've ever seen. (And between us, we've seen many shows.) Most of their songs have riffs that could fill stadiums, so to hear them in a small space is delirious fun. I once saw Prince play a basketball arena and make it feel as intimate as a club. The Hold Steady make a club feel as communally massive as a basketball arena. I was going to call lead singer Craig Finn a great showman, but I don't think it's an act -- his enthusiasm (and that of the whole band) seems genuine.

The reason it was weird is partly because we live in a big city, but not entirely. Finn's lyrics are the smartest around, and they detail the drug- and alcohol-fueled social scene of a recurring cast of characters who are often either star-crossed or simply good at manufacturing their own bad luck. Harrisburg certainly has its charms, as I said, but among those pressing toward the stage on Saturday night were plenty of people who would fit that description. They tossed their beers skyward and stageward in fits of what seemed to alternate between displaced anger and celebration. (The celebratory gestures drew an appreciative grin from Finn; the angry ones an only slightly sterner one.) Toward the end of the set, a few hardy souls dove from the stage and crowd-surfed. My companion asked me if it was 1992. But it was great to see. In New York (and I'm sure other big cities as well), most bands, no matter how joyful or raucous, are greeted with folded arms and oh-so-discerning nods of approval. This was a full-fledged freakout. I have a friend, Ray, who's a devout believer in the old-school power of rock n' roll, and about whose belief I earnestly intend to make a short documentary one day, and I think he would have been highly pleased by the display.

I took pictures, but despite our proximity, something about the lighting and Finn's constant spasms made it difficult to capture anything really good. It did result in cool shots like this one, though, where Finn appears to be in three places at once:

The shot below was taken at the end of the night. The band played the most expertly constructed encore I've ever seen -- for those who know the songs: "Citrus," "First Night," "Stevie Nix," and "Killer Parties." As the last song entered the stretch, a few people pushed their way on to the (very small) stage (already occupied by the five-person band). Then more. Then more. The band kept playing, despite being sent to the absolute edges of the space (the guitarist, in fact, had to climb a stack of amps to get away from the throng). Finn ended the song with a line about everyone in the room "being the Hold Steady," and it sounded much less like a cheesy sendoff than a perfectly embraceable rallying cry. If you ever have opportunity to see them, do.


Post a Comment

<< Home