My number one career fantasy has always been “rock star.” It's one of my sillier fantasies, especially because I have no musical talent. But when I have a chance to daydream while listening to music—especially at the gym—I picture myself playing the music I’m listening to, rocking the socks off of packed stadiums.
When I’m sweating to the not-so-oldies, I often play The Hold Steady because they’re the kind of band I think would form. Their lead singer, Craig Finn, doesn’t sing so much as speak his lyrics. Perfect, because I can’t sing! His lyrics tend to obsess on teenage hijinks and Catholicism, as if he’s been reading my diary. And the band takes two of my very schizophrenic loves, 70s punk and 70s classic rock, and blends them into a great big margarita.
One of the disappointing things about Iowa City is that, for a big part of the Big 10, it gets surprising few big bands coming to town. It’s a real downer when Lawrence, Kansas, and Columbia, Missouri, look like indie rock Meccas compared to here. So when I found out The Hold Steady were coming to Iowa City last Thursday, my friend Bob Hillman and I jumped at the chance to see them.
Since the wheels of rock and roll move more smoothly when properly lubricated, Bob and I met up for a pre-show drink. I suggested the Deadwood, a dark lair that sports an “angry hour” each evening. Bob suggested the Dublin Underground because we could play darts, which gave it a strategic entertainment edge over the Deadwood. We downed our tasty pints and played some terrible darts before departing for the really big show.
The band was playing The Picador, a corn-fed CBGBs formerly called Gabe’s Oasis. Bob and I hadn’t been to the Picador since it had been “renovated” and renamed. Gabe’s was infamous for being a grungy shithole, especially for the men’s bathroom that sported only a trough. After casing the joint, we concluded that the renovations included a) putting in actual urinals and a sink in the men’s room and b) putting in a real unisex bathroom with a toilet and everything. The Picador: Now with 33% less piss on the floor!
The place was pretty full—we weren’t the only hipster doofuses to get excited about a real rock and roll band coming to town. We oiled up the wheels with some Miller High Life and assumed the position among the crowd. Then The Hold Steady came out and rocked us like a hurricane.
For starters, they looked and acted like a rock band. Their keyboard player, Franz Nicolay, sported a porkpie hat, red handkerchief in his jacket pocket, and a waxed mustache that said, “I’m classically trained…to rock!” The guitar player, Tad Kubler, swung his guitar around his chest in a move that would make ZZ Top’s beards curl. The bass player smoked while he played. And Craig Finn jumped all over the stage like an Elvis Costello who really needed to go to the can but worried that the Picador trough would give him hepatitis. For good measure, a bottle of Knob Creek made a few laps around the stage to help the band keep their wheels rolling.
Those wheels rolled at full speed almost the whole night. They came out gunning with, “Stuck Between Stations,” the opener from their new album. There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right, Finn sang. Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. Not this night, though. The boys and girls of Iowa City were having a hell of a time together, jumping up and down, singing, drinking, and loving every minute of it.
“It’s our first time playing Iowa City,” Finn told us, which elicited some whoops. “Before the show, we were drinking over at the Deadwood.” Doh! I missed my big chance to point across the room and say, “I think that’s The Hold Steady” while debating whether to go up and say hello until they left and I missed my big chance anyway.
The only real sin came from Kubler, the guitar player. He spent the first couple of songs giving instructions to the sound guy: turn up my monitor, add some more flux, wax the bass, sonicify my strumming. Blah, blah, blah. He also delivered some really bland stage banter that was like momentum speed bumps. It seemed like he was dying to write and sing his own songs but never gets the chance.
The Church of Rock forgives much, however, if you continue to rock, and Kubler overflowed the collection basket. At one point, he strapped on a red Gibson double neck, just like what Jimmy Page used to use. “Oh man, all is forgiven,” I said to Bob. “That washes away all his sins.” He continued to do his penance with fat riffs and strategically placed guitar solos. I could almost hear Robert Plant asking, Does anyone remember solos?
Their set flew buy until, with their last number, a crowd of about 20-30 audience members got on stage with them. I couldn’t tell if they were invited or they rushed, but The Hold Steady kept playing despite having no room to play. They thanked us and the PA announcer said ominously, “The show is over!”
As we left and headed out into the cold night, I thought about what Craig Finn said between one of the songs. “It’s a joy to do what we do and share it with you.” That’s probably what I liked about them the most. They drank and played and talked to the crowd and looked like they didn’t want to be anyplace else, not even a place with a great men’s room.
Now when I am trying to imagine I’m not having a heart attack at the gym, I’ve got a mental prototype for what my fantasy self should be doing.
(If you like the rock, you owe it to yourself to check out The Hold Steady, especially the new CD, Boys and Girls in America.)