“The Kings have returned to reclaim their throne” was how I proclaimed the return of The Hold Steady with their new album “Teeth Dreams” earlier this year; after an uncharacteristic 3 year absence, Minneapolis’ finest and consistently my favourite rock’n’roll band since I first heard the heady rush of their breakthrough album “Boys And Girls In America” back in 2007, are back – and with a vengeance, the lion finding its’ teeth again after a slightly disappointing effort last time out in “Heaven Is Whenever” with a bleeding-raw slab of prime rock’n’roll, a real stunner to match that last album’s 2 predecessors. Coinciding with the record, a short sojourn of small venues was announced, and it seemed I’d not been the only one bemoaning their absence as it pretty much sold out immediately! I jumped on the website when they went on sale, but my efforts were met with “not available… not available… sold out!” In frustration, I phoned the venue, who after some forlorn pleading, kindly put me on a “pay on the door” reserve list. So I was in!
So, after a lovely day at Kasey’s 5th birthday party, I hit the road just after 5, hitting Bank Holiday traffic on the outskirts of London but still parking up in my usual spot just before 7. Joined the queue after samosa tea, gleefully handing over the £20 entrance fee and entering the ornate dimly pink-lit room early doors, people watching from stage left as it filled up, mainly with blokes! Chatted with a young couple, Silas and Laura, before openers Cheerleader took the small stage at 8.30 prompt. A Philadelphia 5-piece, they played a brand of summery jangle pop which initially was wide-eyed, innocent and insubstantial, sounding cloying and dated. However they toughened up with a couple of more powerpoppy numbers to finish, a chugalong “Perfect Vision” and a very melodic, driving Posies-like “Tomorrow Never Knows”, hinting at greater potential. Write more like these last 2, boys, then we can talk…!
Then suddenly the stage front filled up considerably, and the place felt like the super-quick sell-out that it was. The place felt about to blow, with anticipation palpable, before the highly appropriate entrance music of “We’re Gonna Have A Good Time Together” hit, and the band sauntered onstage for 9.30 to a frenzied reception, mainman Craig Finn striding on enthusiastically and announcing, “I bet you all thought you were going to a Hold Steady gig… but instead you’ve all been invited to our Cinco De Maio party!” They hit the opening bars to “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, the blazing opener to the new album, and the place erupted, a huge moshpit breaking out from note one and staying in situ throughout. And I was right in it – hell yes, I was!
This was one for the books, a raw, ragged, elemental, euphoric distillation of the all-inclusive power of rock’n’roll. “Frighten” was brilliant, then incredibly it got better, a punk rock “Ask Her For Adderal” savage and strident, and “Stuck Between Stations” a euphoric blast. And Craig Finn was everywhere; kinetic, brimfull of nervous energy, fire and verve, exhorting the crowd throughout, constantly repeating lines he’d just sung off-mic, a stupid grin never far from his features, a man in permanent fantasy band camp, his performance was utterly mesmeric. I abandoned myself to the mosh and the moment.
Thankfully there were moments of light and shade in the set, a reverent hush descending for “Almost Everything” (“about being on tour and meeting cool people,” according to Finn) and the later, slow-burn to anthemic chorus of “Ambassador” diffused the mood after the tremendous Thin Lizzy-like snaking riffery “Spinners” (the lyric, “there might be a fight, there might be a miracle” pretty much summing up tonight’s show!). But the rock was aplenty; “Hoodrat Friend” was ragged and frenzied, and a brilliant singalong “Southtown Girls” saw the set out, Finn high-fiving his guitarists as they delivered perfect middle-8 riffs.
Then, incredibly, it got even better… the encore sneaked smoothly in with a hushed “Citrus”, but then roared into the terrace chant “Whoa-oh”s of “Massive Nights”, Finn theatrically pausing to deliver the final line of “when the chaperone said…. we’re gonna build something this Summer!” taking us into the Husker Du-like riffery of the magnificent “Constructive Summer”, the highlight of the night – hell, the highlight of my gig year to date. Brilliant. Another terrace chant “Stay Positive” segued into a languid, libidinous finale of “Killer Parties” and saw the wide-eyed Finn deliver a lengthy thanks, culminating in the statement, “there is so much JOY in what we do up here!” And I get it. I totally do. Grabbed a handshake with new guitarist Steve Selvidge (plus his set-list!) as Finn ended with the totally appropriate, “you, me, all of us.. WE are The Hold Steady!” Damn straight, this was a brilliant, totally all-inclusive demonstration of the connection between band and audience, rock’n’roll at its finest.
I extricated myself from the melee, the suddenly realised exactly how sweaty and battered about I’d become, my condition requiring me to drive out of London shirtless, with the windows down! I’m writing this the following lunchtime and my ears are still ringing. The Kings are back – and how!