Tonight, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate. The Hold Steady have hit their 20th anniversary this year. The band are weeks away from releasing a new album. They’re in the middle of their annual three-day London residency, appropriately named The Weekender (after one of their songs). Hell, it’s a Saturday night. In Camden.
No surprise then that The Electric Ballroom is almost overflowing with good people and good vibes. Then again, so is the stage. As soon as Craig Finn, Tad Kubler, Galen Polivka, Bobby Drake, Franz Nicolay, and Steve Selvidge walk on to the sounds of Bay City Rollers’ Saturday Night, it’s clear the six men aren’t going to have much room to manoeuvre. They have even less when joined later by the two members of The Horn Steady UK.
But something as trivial as physical space isn’t going to cramp their style. They kick off with three especially raucous rockers from early in their career, barely pausing for breath as Stuck Between Stations rolls into The Swish, which tumbles into Barfruit Blues. Sure, there are quieter moments later (like 2021’s failed Hollywood dream Lanyards), but the momentum just seems to keep building as the band commune with their fans.
Although keyboard player Nicolay looks especially thrilled facing the audience from stage right, it’s Finn’s typically unbridled enthusiasm that’s most engaging. Thrashing through the passion, he’s all ecstatic pointing, waving, beaming, confetti throwing, arms-wide-open gesturing, and full-throated singing.
The fans respond in kind, shouting along to Finn’s nuanced lyrics about people trying to find their way, trying to create a better life, trying to make human connections, trying to have a good time. These are dense, intricate narratives featuring the occasional “woah woah” (this is rock ‘n roll after all), and yet everybody seems to know every word.
It’s only Grand Junction, a previously unheard song from forthcoming ninth album The Price Of Progress (due 31 March), that receives a (relatively) muted response. Then again, perhaps the crowd are stunned (relatively) silent by the majesty of the music and its accompanying story: a couple driving around the western part of the United States seeking freedom, but instead just fighting — partly because men she’s talking to online keep sending her presents.
The thrashier, grittier Sideways Skull (also the name of the rather delicious special IPA on sale tonight) is the other new track performed and, having been released as a single in January, is greeted with open arms, like a future fan favourite in the vein of Entitlement Crew. One of many highlights in a set that embraces The Hold Steady’s two most recent (excellent) albums, the 2019 track incites as much whooping, dancing, and crowd surfing as the many, many bona fide classics in Saturday’s setlist. Like the absolutely jubilant Stay Positive, skanky Your Little Hoodrat Friend, dynamic You Can Make Him Like You, breezy Sequestered In Memphis, tireless party anthem Massive Nights, and Chips Ahoy (offhandedly introduced as “a song about a boy, a girl, and a horse”).
So, when Finn declares “Now, let’s build something” before a catch-your-breath rendition of Constructive Summer, he’s clearly talking about more than just a song. Over two decades, The Hold Steady have been able to build a real community that, to quote the singer tonight, “is as important as the players on stage”. They may not be the biggest band in the world. But, based on this Saturday night in Camden, they must have the biggest fans.
Review of The Hold Steady at Electric Ballroom on 11th March 2023 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed.