It’s a cool night outside, but inside just one of a million venues across America it’s a whole different story. Everyone’s a roughed up mess. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler grins half-mockingly as he gulps down his drink. Behind him, drummer Bobby Drake licks the sweat off his lips and closes his eyes, readying for what will be the seventeenth song in the set. Eyes dart left and right above a dago mustache, they belong to multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay, who remains a stoic statue in pale comparison to the boyish, Tommy Stinson sensibilities of bassist Galen Polivka. But nobody on stage looks as battered, weathered, and ambitious as frontman and vocalist Craig Finn — yet, despite the dramatics, there’s a boyish grin that shines from under his Costello-like bifocals. They’re ready to play another 17 songs.
There’s something unique about Minneapolis-Brooklyn’s own The Hold Steady. Passerbys might label them a Springsteen knock off, but those who stick around, even for five minutes, immediately figure them out. They’re just wholesome, decent guys playing wholesome, decent rock n’ roll. This idea was hinted earlier on with their 2005 sophomoric effort, Separation Sunday, then hallmarked with their 2006 gem, Boys and Girls in America. They only cemented things last year with 2008’s more mainstream breakthrough, Stay Positive. Even the laziest rock n’ roll enthusiast could get behind tunes “Sequestered in Memphis” and the anthemic “Constructive Summer.” Come to think of it, positive is a good word to use with these boys, considering it has been nothing but that since they’ve hit the scene.
It doesn’t take too much persuasion on the band’s part to convince that they’re a lasting energy in the live rock circuit. For one, their shows are adrenalized, simply because they’re just too much fun. Even if Finn might sound overtly drunk at times, to the point where lyrics are just incoherent mumbling, it’s that kind of vibe that makes it all the more interesting, especially for the audience who’s just the same. If anything, their show is just one big party, and the band knows that. That’s why when A Positive Rage, the band’s first live album to date, was announced, the idea of bringing home all the bubbly fun seemed too good to be true. In many ways, it still is.
“It feels good to be in a bar band,” Finn declares, before lunging right into “Same Kooks”. The track finds itself wedged in the middle of the set and the band pulls it off like it’s their first. It’s this sense of enjoyment and passion that’s both inspiring and endearing, and yet that’s how most of the songs play out here, in the 17 song set list that was recorded from their sold out 2007 Halloween show at the Metro Chicago.
Things hardly stop at all here. By the time “Stuck Between Stations” unfolds all the rage, happy-go-lucky numbers like the sing-a-long “Chips Ahoy” and the ’60s bounce of “Massive Nights” elevate things to certifiable madness. The introduction to “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is a little campy, but it’s almost fitting. Actually, it’s fun listening to Finn, as he continues to exhaust himself with his signature rambling and outward introspective thoughts. That’s really the highlight of the whole album; in the end, the informal frontman steals the show both live and on record.
Of course, the band shines as well. Throughout the ten minute rendition of “Killer Parties”, Drake and Polivka keep a steady beat that’s more or less a clean slate for everyone to work off of, and they do. Kubler fiddles about with the song’s riffs, meandering here and there, while Nicolay switches between the organ and harmonica. Everyone’s having a blast and Finn sends it all home, testing the waters with syllables before finally screaming, “There is so much joy in what we do up here.” It’s touching, really.
What’s odd here however is the timing. Why they chose autumn of 2007 is anyone’s guess and in some respects it weakens the album. Everyone who has attended a Hold Steady show since summer of 2008 knows how increasingly prominent they’ve become on stage and the inclusion of Stay Positive material has only made for a better stage show. It’s not like they sacrifice older material, either. Lately they’ve been playing close to 30 songs each night, which makes this ample 17 seem like only a handful. Given that, this particular show seems more like the calm before the storm, but it’s not like it’s anything light.
Hands down, this is a fun record and one of the better live albums in recent memory. It’s hard to bottle energy and several albums have failed in attempting. A Positive Rage, while not without its flaws, meets all the expectations and accomplishes its tasks. Towards the end, when Finn says to the audience, “I look out at you and I’m pretty sure I’ve met over half of you”, it’s nice to know that cozy, balmy feeling, typically saved for live shows, can slink back at your disposal. That’s, well, unique.