in the flesh, The Hold Steady can make a firm believer from the sternest of sceptics...
Janne Oinonen

15:27 3rd April 2009

The Hold Steady have faith in rock ‘n’ roll. Their belief is of the unwavering, fundamentalist sort that tends to wedge a wide gap between fellow devotees and detractors. The latter can’t behold the band’s oft-voiced belief in the redemptive power of beers-aloft power chords and strictly heartfelt lyrics about ‘Saint Joe Strummer’ being “our only teacher” with a straight face. The former bunch, meanwhile, gaze in awe at the Brooklyn-based outfit’s ability to turn strictly unironic rocking out from a musty relic serviceable only as something to snigger at into a credible art-form.

Where the two diagonally opposed camps meet is in their enjoyment of the Hold Steady live experience. It doesn’t matter whether you really think that 2007’s near-hysterically acclaimed ‘Boys and Girls in America’ – think the E-Street Band meets Jack Keroauc, with oceans of booze and mountains of powder to power frontman Craig Finn’s cliché-dodging narratives of young people getting up to no good - is the masterpiece countless gushing commentators rank it as. Encountered in the flesh, The Hold Steady can make a firm believer from the sternest of sceptics.

With that in mind, it’s logical enough to assume a platter capturing the band in their element, live, in front of a suitably rowdy gathering of admirers, should make for the defining Hold Steady statement. Yet the audio half of ‘A Positive Rage’ – taped in Chicago, not far from Minneapolis, most members’ home town and the backdrop to many of their best-loved tunes - sounds oddly short on the mesmerising energy and boundless enthusiasm that have turned the five-piece from a cult act to a mainstream concern. Maybe it’s an inevitable side effect of the endless touring, but Finn sounds beyond hoarse, and tracks as mighty as the Springsteenian cavalcade of stadia-proof hard-rocking heroics ‘Stuck Between Stations’ and the tender, heartbroken ‘Lord, I’m Discouraged’ never quite meet their life-affirming potential. It doesn’t help that the setlist’s littered with undistinguished rarities that specialise in the unappetising combination of off-key ranting and by-numbers power chords.

The live segments of the accompanying tour documentary suffer from no such problems. Filmed prior to and immediately after the release of ‘Boys and Girls in America’, the band is on furious form here, with members clearly awed and humbled by both the impressive headcounts they’re attracting all of a sudden and the overwhelmingly positive reaction to their then-fresh third album. There’s an assortment of great scenes – the band’s excitement on the eve of their first London gigs, steaming homecoming shows at Minneapolis’ famed First Avenue club and keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s moustache maintenance routine, for example. The film as a whole, though, is a bit too loose to ever really tackle the great narrative bubbling just beneath the surface; the heart-warming saga of a bunch of been-around-the-block-a-few-times musicians with unfashionable tastes beating the odds to get a shot at the big time after years of toiling in the margins, and doing all this without a single compromise or sell-out. Told well, that would truly be a story capable of converting the unbelievers.