Some bands cannot be fully appreciated unless you see them live. The Hold Steady are not one of those bands. No, the odd thing about the Hold Steady is that you really need to hear them on disc, in a controlled, confined arena, in order to understand what the hell Craig Finn is on about in a live setting. Once you are able to do that, there aren’t many rock bands that can evoke the feelings of unity and joy that the Hold Steady can on stage.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” says Craig Finn, on the DVD portion of A Positive Rage, released on Vagrant. It’s an important concession, because despite all of the Springsteen aping and Replacements name-dropping, the Hold Steady’s dynamic is something exceedingly simple. That is not meant to downplay its significance, but to contextualize its aims. So when, on the live album portion of A Positive Rage, Finn exclaims, “I’m glad you could be a part of it” before exploding into “Stuck Between Stations,” there is no forced modesty in his voice — just simple gratitude and excitement.
The album was recorded at the Metro in Chicago on Halloween 2007. The place was packed to capacity, and that aspect easily comes across on disc. The crystal clarity in which you can hear all of the audience members singing along during the coda of “First Night” is particularly chilling. The elements that make the band’s performances distinct are all there: Finn’s rapid-fire, sometimes nearly incoherent delivery; the chemistry between the band members; the between-song banter that is equal parts inviting and human and kind of crazy.
The DVD plays out like a mini-documentary. It features live footage mixed in with interviews with the band and with fans, and it mostly follows the Hold Steady on tour after the release of 2006’s stellar Boys and Girls in America. If nothing else, it hammers home the point of just how dedicated these guys are to what they are doing.
Seeing the band live, it would be easy to pass off Finn’s exaggerated mannerisms and affectations as empty histrionics. But it’s harder to do that when you have spent time with them in other avenues. Such as through your headphones after a ten-hour shift. Or in your car, driving to Ybor City to take your girlfriend to see them live for the very first time. The thing is, the Hold Steady walk a delicate line between indulgence and preciousness, and it is sometimes too easy to confuse the two. What A Positive Rage tries to accomplish — and does to a great extent — is clear up the confusion.