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The Hold Steady play songs of holy passion and excess

By in Culture

The Hold Steady - photo Nicole Kibert

Arts Writer

The Hold Steady is superb and they are coming to Saskatoon.

Equal parts Clash rebellion and Bruce Springsteen storytelling — well, wait.

Hate the Boss? Fair enough. My dad dances like the Boss (hip shakes and air guitar), dresses cool like the Boss (white T-shirts and faded blue jeans) and listens to the Boss, along with the Eagles and Eric Clapton, seemingly endlessly. I have listened to Born to Run more times than I want to count and, until I heard the Hold Steady’s 2008 album Stay Positive, I totally hated it.

As a one-time Springsteen hater, I can vouch that the Jersey boy similarities are of only the best kind — the kind that made him overplayed in the first place.

The Hold Steady is an old school five-piece blessed with a strong rock sensibility, driven by Tad Kubler’s Les Paul guitar, Franz Nicolay’s almost delicate piano, Bobby Drake’s crashing drums and Galen Polivka’s bass rounding everything out. Sometimes there’s harmonica or accordion thrown in for good measure. Heavy on riffs, chorus lines and shouts, these guys play hard.

Every song, on their albums of the past five years, tells a story. The characters in these stories live in a whole world of scuzz, booze and a special strain of religious hope. The slang is specific but innately comprehensible. And this, fundamentally, is what makes the Hold Steady great.

While big, sweeping statements of big, sweeping ideas can leave a listener feeling cold, details leave a listener knowing exactly what those big ideas feel like.

Take the line “double whiskey-coke no ice” from “Constructive Summer”: drinking in a park or dorm with mix and too much booze; ice is an unnecessary luxury. Who hasn’t been there? Or “in the ER, drinking gin from a jam jar?” This line from Stevie Nix might not apply to you but it does to a friend of a friend.

The lyrics are rife with references to the band’s influences and friends; it is impossible not to find resonance with the Hold Steady’s provenance. Raising glasses to “St. Joe Strummer” and knowing “Profane Existence,” the music plays with the symbolism of punk as much as it pays homage to its background. Old country singers also get their due, as do poets, hometown highlights and even their own past songs.

Finn and Kubler formed The Hold Steady out of the ashes of Lifter Puller, a band whose characters appropriately all burned-out or died. They changed tack from art punk to classic rock and toured tirelessly. They have played with all kinds of groups, from Art Brut to the Rolling Stones.

Most importantly, they’re known as one of the best live bands around. Though there is a rumour that they have played the old Jazz Bassment, this is their first official visit to Saskatoon.

Their brand of hard rock and sing-along choruses are for pubs full of drunken hopefuls. The Hold Steady has appeal for grown-ups who have survived the stories in the songs, and kids still living them. Look forward to a packed house ready to party hard: all drunk, all sweaty and full of life.

photo Nicole Kibert


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