Finn: therapy with a guitar

Rock as ritual

Just as Taylor has nailed the emotional lexicon of her people, Finn has nailed it for his

On Pop

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“It’s like we’ve come to one of the support groups at the start of Fight Club,” said my husband. He was right: we’d gone to see The Hold Steady at the Electric Ballroom in Camden for the first date of their annual three-night London run, and all around us there were men emanating the distinctive joy that comes with feeling your feelings.

I don’t want to suggest that a Hold Steady audience is a testosterone-only environment — after all, I was the one who had dragged my husband there. But there is something about the Hold Steady experience that seems to hit particularly sweetly for men. As singer Craig Finn rasps on the song “Carlos Is Crying”, “it’s different for boys”.

Like most Hold Steady songs, “Carlos” is really a short story set to riffs. And, like a lot of Hold Steady songs, it’s set in a bar — the band, from Brooklyn via Minneapolis, do grimy rock ’n’ roll ballads of blue collar America, where hard work gives way to hard liquor at 5:30pm. If you’re listening to a Hold Steady track, it’s a fair bet that booze, pills and betting are going to be involved.

“Carlos” is about watching a drunk friend go over the emotional cliff. “Now Carlos starts crying / And we’re all kind of frightened,” sings Finn, who’s an expert observer of the comi-tragic moment. “Every single person at the table stops talking / And he’s sobbing and shaking.” It’s a kind of uninhibited show of feeling, the song implies, that men really struggle to deal with.

But if Carlos’ demonstrativeness is strange, his reasons for crying are all too familiar: midlife disappointment, a sense of squandered chances. “If failure’s a trick then we learned pretty quick,” says Carlos to the song’s narrator. “It just took a few times to get right.” (“Trick” is punning here on the fact that the song’s characters are skater boys who’ve aged out of the boy part.)

The Hold Steady are a grown-up band and always have been. When they started in the early 2000s, they were in their 30s, making them practically ancient in an industry that has always been vampirically attracted to youth.

Their peer group included a whole rash of angular, edgy guitar bands called “the somethings”, all with abstract lyrics and even more abstract haircuts. One of them, The Bravery, became an object of mockery when it turned out they were — gasp — in their late twenties, with a hinterland of other projects behind them. (The other problem with The Bravery was that they only had one good song, “An Honest Mistake”.)

But The Hold Steady weren’t even pretending to be young. If they were ever sent for a consultation with a stylist, it didn’t leave a mark: they look like regulation middle-aged men. If they’d stepped down from the stage and mingled with the crowd, you’d quickly have lost track of who were the stars and who were the civilians.

People show up to Hold Steady concerts with pockets full of paper confetti

On stage, though, they radiate charisma. Finn in particular spends his time front and centre with his arms held out in an embrace big enough to hold all of the audience. And the audience returns the love with their entire hearts. Fans call themselves “the scene” (a reference pulled from Finn’s lyrics), and over the decades that The Hold Steady have been playing, their concerts have acquired a whole grammar of audience participation.

For example, the confetti. People show up to Hold Steady concerts with pockets full of paper confetti (not the foil or glitter kind — it’s ruinous for the band’s instruments, and the devil for the cleaning staff). And at certain points in certain songs agreed on by long tradition, the confetti goes up.

At the electric ballroom as a first-time scene attendee, there was something completely magical for me about the way the air spontaneously filled with rainbow-coloured scraps of paper. And there was something even more magical about looking at the forums later and seeing that I’d been part of a planned moment: strangers plotting together to create the show.

It reminded me of another fandom: the Swifties, who make friendship bracelets in tribute to a Taylor Swift lyric and trade them at her concerts. A live performance is a kind of collective worship, and these rituals are a part of it. The audience make the show, in a smaller way than the artist but just as surely.

In other words, a Hold Steady concert is where you’ll find 40-and-up jeans and tees guys acting like teenage girls and millennial women. Which, of course, is why I’m into it. Just as Taylor has nailed the emotional lexicon of her people, Finn has nailed it for his.

At the end of “Carlos”, Finn belts out the song’s climax, in which the narrator tells his emotional friend: “I love you / I feel you / I’m sorry you’re hurting.” But in the live show, of course, he’s singing it to the audience — we take the part of Carlos. For the boys in the audience, it seemed like a message they were deeply grateful to receive.

It feels like being offered the most generous kind of grace. Whatever sadness you go into the room with, something about Finn’s delivery convinces you that you don’t have to carry it alone. What can music do that’s bigger than that?

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