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The Hold Steady

A Positive Rage


May 16, 2009 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

On the documentary DVD that’s packaged with this live CD, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn comments: “This band was created in sort of the shadow of the Replacements.” Nothing wrong with that, given that The Replacements recorded an influential string of classic studio albums in the 1980s, but it makes The Hold Steady a dubious band to release a live album. Like The Replacements, whose drunken train-wreck performances remain better remembered than their great ones, The Hold Steady plays fast and loose with its songs. An ample supply of beer bottles is always within reach, and Finn periodically will slur his vocals or stop short of delivering his best lyrical punch lines. Yet, what distinguishes The Hold Steady as a live attraction is its celebration of a communal experience with the audience. It’s an ideal that’s been projected by major-label mainstays Springsteen and U2 since the ’70s and ’80s, respectively, but largely was lost when grunge, punk and indie went platinum in the ’90s.

Finn doesn’t possess the kind of voice that lifts your soul when he ratchets up the intensity; instead, the positivity emanates from his goofy grins, spastic dancing and face-to-face interaction with the devotees up front pumping their fists. On The Hold Steady’s consistently excellent studio efforts, Finn’s effusive tales of mischief and debauchery come across loud and clear, and more recently, with John Agnello producing, the songs have become more diverse and nuanced, steadily growing beyond the bar-band template. You wouldn’t know it, though, by listening to A Positive Rage, which was recorded in Chicago on Halloween 2007. Although the energy is palpable as the band plows through the songs, and keyboardist Franz Nicolay and guitarist Tad Kubler shine intermittently, there’s little to be discovered in these renditions. “Citrus,” an acoustic ballad from Boys and Girls in America (2006), is boosted by a drumbeat toward the end, but mostly the songs mirror the studio cuts (unless they’re extended to let Finn address the crowd). Not until the end of the show, when non-album song “Girls Like Status” segues into the traditional closing anthem “Killer Parties” does the recording feel vital. It would be interesting to know whether this album’s omission of four songs from the Chicago concert helps or hinders its flow, because the exclusion of Boys and Girls’ “Chillout Tent,” which was performed that night, seems a shame.

The documentary DVD has some peculiarities as well. It begins like an infomercial, relying on gushing fan testimonials and mixing them with footage from an early 2007 London show and some backstage band interviews. At the end of this segment, Kubler states: “I’m hoping that this gives us a little preview of what’s to come for us in the U.S.” Sure enough, the footage switches to the band touring the U.S., but it backtracks to October 2006, during the second week of The Hold Steady’s tour for Boys and Girls in America. From there, things settle and follow a more sensible, linear narrative with live snippets from city to city and commentary from the band members as they contemplate their growing fan base. A highlight is an interview with Finn driving through Minneapolis, his hometown, while he reminisces about his favorite local bands and explains the significance of headlining the city’s famed First Avenue club.

The timing of A Positive Rage’s 2009 release is curious; the DVD content predates the CD content, and therefore the entire package predates the band’s latest album, 2008’s Stay Positive, a fantastic work that wasn’t met with as much excitement as Boys and Girls in America or 2005’s Separation Sunday. The Halloween show is a questionable choice, not only because “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is the lone Stay Positive song that was performed, but because it captures The Hold Steady in a large club, The Metro, the same type of venue that it still is playing nearly two years later. Although the DVD sees the band graduating from small clubs, the live album represents neither the beginning nor end of a particular period. As a document, A Positive Rage leaves something to be desired; as a belated souvenir, it offers enough to please existing fans.


Author rating: 6/10

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