Festival of Faith & Music

FFM 2009

Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making
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The Hold Steady

“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear, I've had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.”
-- The Hold Steady, “Citrus,” from Boys and Girls in America

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together,” Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road. “Sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk -- real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”

Like Kerouac before him, the Hold Steady's Craig Finn is a wandering American poet, a well-sharpened observer of what happens when boys and girls get together, and, perhaps above all, a prophet unafraid to indulge in the communion wine. Founded in Brooklyn in 2003, at the height of that city's 80s new wave revival, the Hold Steady quickly made a name for themselves for everything that they weren't: the balding Finn and his bandmates were decidedly unhip, and their big-time rock riffing didn't exactly slide unnoticed into New York's slick scene. Indeed, a great deal of The Hold Steady's acclaim has come from their unflinching sincerity; when they shout “We gotta stay positive” on last year's record of the same name, they aren't fooling around.

But what's set The Hold Steady apart over four critically-acclaimed releases is Finn's mile-a-minute storytelling. Owing to a Catholic raising and a Boston College education (not to mention a healthy devotion to Bruce Springsteen), Finn's songs play something like the biblical arc of creation, fall, and redemption spread over the lives of teenage runaways, college students, and aging rock 'n' rollers. Separation Sunday, the group's 2005 release, is a concept album that tells the story of Holly (short for Hallelujah), a good-kid runaway who gives herself over to drugs and cheap sex on the streets, where she becomes born again and struggles to escape the temptation of evil. When she finally returns to the white walls of the churches, she “crashes into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass,” limping on her broken heels and asking, “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

Throughout The Hold Steady's canon, suburban kids drink on water towers and proclaim themselves to be their only saviors, passed-out partiers find love in the recovery room, and discouraged teenagers pray for their fallen-away girlfriends. Sheets stain, cars are stolen, and people do what they have to do to survive. Some turn to rock 'n' roll for salvation. Some turn to the cross.

It is no secret that irony is king in indie rock. Good-looking kids with slanty haircuts and beat-up guitars may make for killer parties, but the velvet-rope entry policy makes it too hard to live there. The Hold Steady's at-times overwhelming sincerity has rendered them something of an indie rock firebrand. Those who dislike The Hold Steady do so with the kind of negative passion that few can conjure. But those who have found power in The Hold Steady's confident honesty and refusal to put on a front hold themselves together like a congregation. Calling themselves The Unified Scene (after a lyric in the song “Sweet Payne”), they flood the message boards and the concert halls, and have shown up in more than one subsequent Hold Steady song. But this scene that Finn imagines, both explicitly and implicitly, is a positive outfit, a welcoming, inviting place that is far from the elitist white walls of the indie rock community. Rock 'n' roll, at its best, has always drawn people together from the fringes and told them that they have a place where they can be themselves. In this way, a Hold Steady concert is the type of draped-arms community that we should find in more places.

Those who have grown up in the church might find The Hold Steady's loud, drunk version of redemption to be terrifying. Good. Craig Finn's Minneapolis isn't very different from your town; the same people live there, and even if they aren't selling their bodies on the streets, they're selling themselves somehow, even in the most well-lit of homes. The Hold Steady paint the struggle between good and evil – the alternations between despair, hope, murder, joy, community, and isolation – in large pictures, guitars turned up loud for the hard of hearing.

- Marty Garner