Gig Review: The Hold Steady, Sheffield Leadmill, 21st February 2007

To say that I was looking forward to this gig would be an understatement. Having missed last week’s Manchester gig due to an unforseen international call up by my employers, and having heard how great that gig was from various reliable sources, not to mention the fact that The Hold Steady have released three of my favourite albums of the last few years, I was positively salivating at the thought of finally seeing and hearing them in the flesh. For the week beforehand I became more and more obsessed with the band; Separation Sunday was welded into my car CD player, I bashed out the riffs to “Stuck Between Stations”, “Banging Camp” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” endlessly on my Telecaster with the amp turned up to, er, 4. These great great songs played over and over in my head as I tired to get to sleep at night. It’s been years since I anticipated a gig quite so feverishly, the Arcade Fire gigs in a couple of weeks don’t even come close. Surely I was setting myself up for a major disappointment.

The Leadmill is a great venue, much better than Manchester’s Club Academy, but we arrived to find the main stage cordoned off and another stage set up in the cosy environs of the bar area. The two support bands both played rock ‘n’ roll. The Checks, from New Zealand, were uninspiring, playing what sounded like a bunch of Rolling Stones cast offs and one song which was slightly better and sounded like The Strokes, while The New York Fund, from London with a Glaswegian singer, were bottom of the bill but much better, with a more subtle sound leaning towards Americana.

I realised within seconds of The Hold Steady launching into their opening track, “Stuck Between Stations”, that this gig was going to more than live up to expectations. Whether or not this was a reaction to the fact that this long-awaited gig had finally started, and with such a great song, I don’t know, but I soon became hypnotised by the magnetic presence of frontman Craig Finn. Bearded and much shorter than I’d expected, Finn was right in our faces, leaning over us, inches away, regularly showering us with drops of spittle, living every line of the songs, having the time of his life. After each line he’d repeat the same line off mic so that only the few of us close enough could hear. At other times he clapped along like an excited little kid. He worked the front of the stage, staring people straight in the eye until a connection was made but never lingering long enough to appear intimidating. And behind him, all the while, his band played a blinder, laying into their instruments with broad smiles on their faces and with the same enthusiasm as their singer. He called them the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world – nobody there could disagree – and said that all he did was talk shit over the top. It’s the shit he half-sings over the top that makes the band so special; the druggy narratives, the recurring characters and locations: Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne; Penetration Park, Ybor City, the banks of the Mississippi River; the killer parties, the songs scratched into your soul. They were all there on the night, it was Springsteen shot through with the wasted spirit of The Replacements.

The set was mostly Boys And Girls In America material along with “Stevie Nix”, “Hoodrat” and “Multitude Of Casualties” from Separation Sunday. It seems they did a better set than this on every other night of the tour but it didn’t matter one bit as the experience was a celebration of life, of music, and of being in the bar at Sheffield Leadmill on 21st February 2007. After the raucous singalong of “Southtown Girls” had seen out the main set and a drunken Finn had almost done himself a serious injury falling off the side of the stage, they returned and finally calmed things down with a beautiful rendition of “First Night” before playing “Girls Like Status”, a Boys And Girls outtake but easily worthy of inclusion on that album.

During the closing “Killer Parties” Finn began to grab hands and haul people up onto the stage with the band. One punter, who looked like he’d just stepped off the golf course, had already taken Tad Kubler’s guitar and seemed to know what he was doing while Kubler settled for playing harmonica. First JustHipper and then myself were pulled up on stage by Finn and about 15 of us stood with the band, jumping up and down in celebration, while Finn stood in the crowd, singing and evangelising about how music has the power to bring people together and how we, the audience, are just as important as the band and that we are all The Hold Steady. When the song finished audience and band members shook hands, embraced, as if the final whistle had blown and we’d won the cup. We left elated with expectations exceeded on a night I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

The Hold Steady – Girls Like Status

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