It's been said often that The Hold Steady, especially singer Craig Finn, look like the guys who work in the cubicle next you. That's certainly true when Finn takes the stage in a short-sleeved polo shirt and khakis. However, Finn has 100x the stage presence of people who try 100x harder to look the part of a rocker.
Last night's Hold Steady show in San Francisco was, as is always the case when they play (or at least the times I've seen them) a loud, unabashedly celebratory, communal event. They are one of those kinds of bands that don't so much play *to* an audience as *with* an audience. There is no fourth wall with them. While some bands, like The National need the fourth wall to make what they do work so well, The Hold Steady need to tear down that wall and get down on the floor with you to celebrate the love of the music.
Finn's songs are full of references to a recurring cast of characters, most of whom would be at Hold Steady shows with the rest of us. At least when they aren't in jail, rehab, on a drug-fueled vision quest in the Sonoma, or hanging out at the banging "camps down by the Mississippi" smoking meth or inhaling nitrous oxide, or getting wasted in Ybor City. They turn up in song after song throughout the band's 4 albums. The newest, Stay Positive, continues the musical integration of keyboard player Franz Nicolay to the point where you can't imagine most of the songs written as they were without his presence. He's almost become as dominating a musical feature of the band as Tad Kubler's guitar or Finn's lyrics.
Though I got to the venue in a bit of a bad mood, I came away from the show in a great mood. The band did a great job of covering all four records in the set. The recurring "Stay Postive" theme would sound corny coming from any other band. But when Finn sings it so earnestly with his band grooving tightly behind him, it's hard not to have his songs be among those certain songs that get scratched into our souls.