Monday, March 19, 2007

Halleluiah and Other Casualties

Here’s the deal, boys and girls in America: the best rock ‘n roll band in the world these days is fronted by a barstool poet named Craig Finn, and he’s the heir to all the wide-eyed, wild-haired proclamations of outsiders and would-be Messiahs from Kerouac to Dylan to Springsteen to Bono. His band, The Hold Steady, plays AC/DC and Who power chords and Professor Roy Bittan piano riffs. Finn roams the stage, runs his fingers through his hair, and declaims half-spoken, half-sung visionary statements about addiction and Jesus, hopelessness and hope. They are little rock ‘n roll vignettes that are haunted by shadowy characters living life at the edges of the world. Some of them fall off. Some of them walk on back to love and if not wholeness, then at least sanity. He’s easily the best songwriter I’ve heard in the past five years, and he brought his cautionary, desperate, and desperately funny sermons to Columbus, Ohio on St. Patrick’s Day.

I knew that the confluence of The Hold Steady and St. Patrick’s Day was likely to produce some interesting moments. And indeed it did. Whenever you mix a glorified bar band with frat boys and an excuse to party, the results are fairly predictable. So the flying beer ended up in my hair. I did my small part to keep various crowd surfers off the ground. And I got pummeled and bruised a bit. No big deal. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, Bud Light hair and all.

Finn and his band played most of their latest album, Boys and Girls in America, and a few selections from earlier albums Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. The crowd sang along with every word (and there are a lot of words in Craig Finn songs), pumped their fists, and slammed into one another. Guitarist Tad Kubler made a few rock star moves and at one point played atop a 20-foot Marshall amp. But for the most part, this was Craig Finn’s show, and Craig Finn came across as the quintessential boho poet, part acid casualty and part dissolute English professor, the smartest, most sensitive, and most damaged guy in the room. It was glorious rock ‘n roll, the perfect marriage of music and lyrics, and it left my bruised, beer-soaked self very, very happy.

For what it’s worth, don’t look for the MTV Awards and superstardom to follow anytime soon. The keyboard player looked like a Brooklyn cabbie, Kubler has a beer gut, and Finn, disheveled and, yes, wild-eyed, looked like he wasn’t lying when he sang that the eighties almost killed him. If image is everything, then The Hold Steady will amount to nothing. But none of that matters. Every so often these little rock ‘n roll epiphanies remind me why I even bother to care about disposable, four-minute songs. And I experienced more than a few of those moments Saturday night, and I realized that, at its best, and in spite of crowds who are more interested in getting drunk and rowdy than listening to good music, rock ‘n roll can still carry the seeds of redemption.

“Certain songs they get scratched into our souls,” Finn sang at one point, and he is right. One of them was about Holly, a recurring character in Finn’s songs who first made her appearance Saturday night in a song called “Crucifixion Cruise”:

Halleluiah came to in a confession booth
Infested with infections
Smiling on an abcessed tooth
Running hard on residue
Crashing thru the vestibule
The crucifixion cruise
She climbed the cross and found she liked the view
Sat reflecting on the resurrection
Talking loud over lousy connections
She put her mouth around a difficult question
She said Lord what do you recommend
To a real sweet girl who's made some not sweet friends?
Lord what would you prescribe
To a real soft girl who's having real hard times?

The frat boys in the crowd went apeshit over that one, screaming “USA! USA!” in unison when it ended. Go figure: a song about existential despair greeted by a hockey chant. And here was the best one, another song about Holly, an impossibly harrowing and tender little ditty called “How a Resurrection Really Feels” that closed the concert:

Her parents named her Halleluiah, the kids all called her Holly
If she scared you then she's sorry
She's been stranded at these parties
These parties they start lovely but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody
The priest just kinda laughed
The deacon caught a draft
She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass
She was limping left on broken heels
When she said father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?

Holly was a hoodrat
Now you finally know that
She's been disappeared for years
Today she finally came back
She said: St. Louis had enslaved me
I guess Santa Ana saved me
St. Peter had me on the queue
The St. Paul saints they waved me through
I was all wrapped up in some video booth
When I heard her say I love you too

She said I've laid beneath my lovers but I've never gotten laid
Some nights she felt protected
Some nights she felt afraid
She spent half last winter just trying to get paid
From some guy she'd originally thought to be her saviour
They wrote her name in magic marks
On stopsigns and subway cars
They got a mural up on East 13th
That said Halleluiah rest in peace
Halleluiah was a hoodrat
And now you finally know that
She's been disappeared for years
Today she finally came back

Walk on back
Walk on back
She said don't turn me on again
I'd probably just go and get myself all gone again
Holly was a sexy mess
She looked strung out but experienced
So we all got kind of curious

Walk on back

Walk on back

“Walk on back,” Finn sang softly, over and over again. After a night of raucous power chords, it was startling in its quiet insistence. “Walk on back,” he sang, his voice, at last, barely a whisper, his right arm extended out over the crowd. And then he walked off the stage. “USA! USA!” the frat boys chanted, and spilled their beers. All the boys and girls in America were too wasted to recognize a gentle benediction.


Karen said...

i'm afraid you forgot to mention the fabulous company you were with... ;)

randy said there were a lot of really really REALLY drunk people there. i guess that's what you get for having a concert on s.p.d.

Andy Whitman said...

I'm sure you know this, but for everybody else there, there's no slight intended at all, Karen. I had a great time with Randy and Jeremy.

My favorite drunk guy was the guy who couldn't even stand, but who was miraculously kept upright throughout the concert by the crush of the crowd that didn't leave him enough room to fall.

Karen said...

oh i know. i was just giving you a hard time.

that's awesome. i was very impressed that randy didn't end up with beer spilled all over him.

jackscrow said...

Well Andy, glad you had fun. Sounded like fun?

The Cockburn concert was great, per usual.

When he did "King Kong Goes to Tallahasee" every guitar player in the place was catching flys....

Two hours, one break, with three encores -- closer being "Pacing the Cage" and "Peggy's Kitchen Wall".

Good thing he didn't play "Festival of Friends" or id'a cried.


jackscrow said...


If you are asking about the Cockburn show, it was a Stuart's Opera House, in Nelsonville.

Great venue. You need to check the site for upcoming shows. Might surprise you.

e said...

i guess i won't quibble with you over the designation as "greatest...." I like Spoon a lot better. But perhaps "like" and "best" are unrelated.

Your experience shows that good music is wasted on the drunk. It's a shame that one must wait until a band becomes unpopular to see them in a venue that doesn't involve alcohol, machismo, and slurred violence.

Unless you see Sufjan at Calvin. Then no one does anything until the concert is over--and then there's only polite clapping.

Andy Whitman said...

"Unless you see Sufjan at Calvin. Then no one does anything until the concert is over--and then there's only polite clapping."

Yep. The first time I saw Sufjan was in fact at Calvin, a couple years ago. I've seen him a couple times since then, but the Calvin concert remains my favorite. It was in a small auditorium/theater, and people sat and listened. I mean they really, really listened. There was no other sound than that of Sufjan and his band. I'll get to repeat that experience, I hope, in about a week and a half. And see Neko Case and Emmylou Harris, too.

The Calvin approach works for all three. It probably wouldn't be quite as effective for, say, The Hold Steady.

Anonymous said...

No MTV awards?? I don't know...they got that Vagrant Records thing going for them.

Andy Whitman said...

Scott, The Hold Steady played at the Newport Music Hall, near the OSU campus.

Andy Whitman said...

Scott, I don't know if you're familiar with The Hold Steady, but as a big Springsteen fan I feel fairly confident in saying that you would love them. The keyboard guy has definitely studied at the Roy Bittan School of Romantic Bombast, And Craig Finn reminds me very much of early Springsteen circa "The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle," right down to his his phrasing and his songwriting chops.

Anonymous said...

ah...someone actually has recognized Rancid and recognized that they are damn good. A smile has been brought to my face. I eagerly anticipate the new album sometime this summer, meanwhile, has anyone bothered to checkout the most excellent new Ted Leo?

Andy Whitman said...

Scott wrote:

"I've seen many, many shows at the Newport/Agora since my first trip there from Athens in the mid-seventies and having lived in Columbus for the last 25 years. What's your favorite? The last one I saw there, in September with my son, was Rancid. And it was damn good."

Yeah, the Newport/Agora has sort of been my home away from home for many years. I've seen many dozens of shows there; maybe a hundred.

Best shows? The Loudon Wainwright III/Richard Thompson double bill from the late '80s would have to be way up there. Elvis Costello when he was just starting out. The Ramones in the late '70s. Bruce Cockburn and Sam Phillips from the early '90s. The Stray Cats when they were all the rockabilly rage. Los Lobos many times, pretty much whenever they come to town. And The Hold Steady show I just saw. It was great; a definite concert highlight of my life.

Anonymous said...

Andy and other Scott... I wonder if I was one of the oh so many "dueting" with your son and the Murphys...most likely so. The best show that I can ever remember though was the 101der-fest from '99. I generally piss on all things 101, but for some reason, somehow they got Wilco to "co-headline" this with Matthew Sweet. Now, I can take or leave Sweet and he was decent enough...until he thought it would be a good idea to do a 5 SONG ENCORE!, you're nowhere near that good. All I could think was how he was cutting into Wilco's time, etc. But then Jeff and the boys, back when Jay Bennett was still around, absolutlely slayed me. From starting off with "Via Chicago" to ending the last encore well past 12 o'clock with "Casino Queen", it was the closest thing to a perfect performance I have ever seen. I remember walking out and my friend asked me "Well, what do you think?"...and I was speechless it was that good.

Anonymous said...

Some news from
"The Hold Steady have announced plans to release a new acoustic EP titled Live At Fingerprints. The strictly limited disc will feature five songs recorded last October during an in-store appearance at Fingerprints independent record store in Long Beach, CA.

The album will only be available through indie stores and a full release can be found via It is expected on April 17, 2007."

Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,

I was introduced to your writing through Paste and visit your blog regularly. I trust your ear and sympathize with a lot of your aesthetic values, not to mention your spiritual concerns.

In any case, I write songs sometimes, and I had this thought that I'd be really cool if you heard a couple. If you have time, please visit and listen to "GEm GEm" and "believe" (and the others if you're interested--the others actually have better sound quality). I just threw the site together today, and it randomly occured to me to comment on your blog. They're obviously demo quality and demo-arranged (i.e. just guitar). To be honest, I haven't been too musically active lately (my band's on a potentially indefinite hiatus), but I thought it'd pass the link on to you.

Torrance, CA

Anonymous said...

A positive note on Hold Steady's audiences from across the ocean...I saw their sold-out show in Manchester, UK, the other night and saw nothing matching the frat-boy stuff you mention. The audience were all ages, although predominantly 20-something, knew most of the words, had had a few beers but there wasn't a single hockey- (or socccer-) chant. Best sight of the night for a lifelong Sprinsgteen fan was three teenagers word- and note-perfect, harmonising on Thunder Road as they left...