The Hold Steady

The Brooklyn rockers aim to reconnect with their audience after a series of lukewarm album reviews

'It’s one thing to start it with a positive jam / And it’s another thing to see it all through / And we couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you,' claims The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn towards the end of the band's performance at The Spring and Airbrake.

With a singing voice like Bruce Springsteen circa 1974 (though his appearance is more Seinfeld’s George Costanza on Red Bull) it’s clear that the love affair between The Hold Steady and their audience still has a long way to run.

This is the band's second headline appearance in Belfast – their first was in the same venue in May 2008 – and, if anything, the audience is even more fervent, more drunken, and more in love than ever with one of the best live bands around.

2010 was a difficult year for The Hold Steady. First there was the departure of keyboard player Franz Nicolay, whose musical skills were a major part of the group dynamic. Then their fifth album, Heaven is Whenever, released in May, received lukewarm reviews. The same critics who had lauded the band as if they walked on water now accused them of treading it.

This gig in Belfast is the 6th date of a UK tour. There is no new album to promote, so one can only presume that they are playing for the hell of it. Out to reconnect with their fan base and do what they do best: play rock ‘n’ roll.

Starting, as they often do, with ‘Positive Jam', the first song from their debut album, the band immediately has the crowd roaring their approval. The music is riff-heavy; new guitarist Steve Selvidge's style edges the band's sound closer to Thin Lizzy than earlier E Street Band territory.

The set is relentless: song follows song with barely a pause in between. Finn spews out his story songs, his body in constant motion. He hangs back from the microphone mouthing encouragement to the punters one moment, smiles ecstatically and adjusts his glasses the next.

Finn knows how to work an audience, and has us clapping along, punching the air and singing as the band work their way through a set list that plays like a Best of The Hold Steady Party Mix. All the crowd pleasers are included: ‘Massive Nights’ is followed by ‘Constructive Summer’, with its memorable lines: 'Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer / I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher.'

By focusing on the upbeat tunes, though, the band seem to have lost something in concert in this latest incarnation. Apart from the fact that Nicolay was a perfect onstage foil for Finn, his piano and keyboard skills added warmth and depth to the band's music, especially on ballads such as ‘First Night’ and ‘Citrus’ from 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, both performed wonderfully in Belfast back in 2008.

It is a shame that the only ballad played tonight is the (admittedly beautiful) ‘We Can Get Together,’ a paean to all the music you love, with its sentimental refrain 'Heaven is whenever / we can get together / lock your bedroom door / and listen to your records.' Not that the crowd seem to care about that. They are busy enjoying the party. All in all, I do too.

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