Given the sort of characters that inhabit Craig Finn’s songs, it may come as a surprise to see The Hold Steady frontman live. The man who writes so perfectly of beautifully doomed, elegantly wasted outsiders may be expected to look like Richey Edwards’ older brother. Instead, he’s more like an overweight Martin O’Neill.
Short, bespectacled and balding, Craig Finn may not look like a rock star. And his dancing (akin to that of a dad at a wedding) leaves a fair bit to be desired as well. Yet it’s the this down to earth attitude and marvellously unselfconscious way that he throws himself into his live performance that make his band such an compelling sight.
Finn is a bundle of kinetic energy throughout this opening night of the band’s UK tour. While the crowd may remain, for the most part, pretty static it’s in stark contrast to Finn, spitting his lyrics out, pointing at the audience, spinning around and generally looking like a man having the time of his life.
His band are equally impressive, showing exactly why they’re often described as ‘the best bar band in America’. Hardly a breath is taken between songs – the opening Constructive Summer slams straight into Hot Soft Light, with all the expertise of a band who’ve spent every hour playing together.
Although Finn may be the frontman, he never dominates proceedings. Guitarist Tad Kubler spins impressive solo after impressive solo while the moustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay spends time throwing shapes and bantering with the crowd. The whole impression is one of a group of musicians having the time of their life.
The setlist is pretty evenly split between the band’s four albums, with equal prominence being given to tracks from the lesser known first two albums, Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. It’s a tribute to the band’s back catalogue that songs such as Your Little Hoodrat Friend and Cattle & The Creeping Things can nestle cosily next to more commercial fare such as Sequestrated In Memphis.
Like their most namechecked inspirations, The Replacements and Darkness On The Edge Of Town-era Bruce Springsteen, The Hold Steady sound at their best in a small, intimate venue, which makes The Leadmill pretty much their perfect gig. Songs such as You Can Make Him Like You and the title track from Stay Positive are torn into with so much energy that it’s impossible to watch without grinning.
One small quibble perhaps – live, a lot of the subtle nuances about The Hold Steady are lost. Craig Finn is one of the most skilful songwriters around, throwing in biblical references, memorable turns of phrase and often back-referencing his own songs. Obviously in a live environment, it’s more about dancing, singing and avoiding the flying beer, but when an audience is a bit less energetic, as is the case tonight, sometimes it can feel a bit flat.
However, when you’re watching a band as life-affirming as The Hold Steady can be, such complaints are minor. With a 90 minute set powered through, they certainly live up that billing as ‘the best bar band in America’. Make that the world.