30 some-odd years ago, Neil Young posed the question of whether it is better to burn out than to fade away. Since then, he has spent the majority of his time fading away. So that's nice. Also of relevance: The band whose name conveniently doubles as the title of this post. Because otherwise this would be even more of a load of gibberish than it is currently devolving into. So wait, let's try this: The Hold Steady are an awesome band who recently played in Burlington, Vermont. I was there. It was fun.
That was easy. But not quite what I was hoping for. Or very long. Abortive attempt number 3 to follow.
Ten years ago, Lifter Puller broke up. They were a band who, like so many others, I had not heard about by the time of their demise (Chief amongst these: The Beatles. I blame my parents. And the inevitably linear movement of time). Like many others, they played fairly straightforward post-punk. However, unlike many others, they were fronted by Craig Finn. You see, this is important. Because, rather than singing songs, Craig Finn gets extremely wired and simply yells out the lyrics. The more lines and syllables the better. Typically these words will be tales featuring those traditional topics of rock and roll, sex and drugs. And he approaches the songs as stories, with characters who weave throughout albums, and, to some extent, the band's entire catalog. There is a phrase for this, and it is nerd chic. I am so there. So in 2000, unbeknownst to me, Lifter Puller broke up. This led to Finn and their guitarist, Tad Kubler, forming a new band, The Hold Steady, who were pretty much the same thing, but with a keyboard player. Which will work just fine.
The set kicked off with 'The Cattle and the Creeping Things' off their second album, a jittery rant skirting the edges of religion over a hyper-caffeinated staccato beat. And while the music is quite excellent, the real draw for The Hold Steady live is Finn. He came out with a guitar around his neck, a tool of the trade which would quickly be revealed as a prop. For the entirety of the first song the guitar simply hung around his neck as he used one hand to hold the microphone and stand at various odd angles as he spit the lyrics out into it, the other hand being thoroughly preoccupied with wildly gesturing for the duration of the lyrics. In between lines, he would often continue yelling things at the audience off-mic. If this doesn't sound brilliant to you, we probably can't be friends anymore. And you probably drink less coffee than I do. Well, you probably do that anyway.
They are now four albums into their career, and are gradually tweaking their sound with each album. Because, you see, if you don't do that, you eventually turn into Clinic. Or Boston, if you'd like me to make fewer indie references. Just admit that I'm hipper than you (c. 2003). It's easy to tell anyway, primarily because I have a bad haircut. Anyway, the majority of these tweaks have involved more melody, more singing, and less TOTAL AWESOMENESS AND DOMINATION VIA THE AUDIO FORMAT. As you may have been able to ascertain, I feel this direction is not the best use of the band's considerable talents. I was subtle about it. Their second album, Separation Sunday, was a peak from which the band has been gradually receding ever since. This is not a major fault or anything. Most bands never sniff anything close to the heights that album scaled. Think 'Black Dog', but for 50 minutes. And with better lyrics. And singing. And without that terrible hitch in the guitar riff that makes the entire song terrible. Got it?
That was the format Finn followed for the majority if the set, which hit a number of high points (Hello 'Chips Ahoy'), even if it stayed away from the older material more than I would have liked. And it was a blast. That said, I have grave concerns about the upcoming album. They played six songs off it, and three of them, technically, sucked. One was especially terrible, featuring chugging power chords under traditionally sung verses and chori. And of the three good songs, one featured a mysterious intro that sounded lifted off The Joshua Tree for two minutes or so grafted awkwardly onto a song that only took off once said intro ended. They called the singer for the opening band out to provide additional vocals for one song, stating that he did a lot of singing on the new record. And, most damningly of all, during the breakdowns in several songs, spots which old live recordings will attest used to feature Finn telling stories to the audience, the band jammed. That is a dirty word in these parts.
But, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. After all, burning out leaves a legacy untarnished by decline. However, reputations are built on achievement, something gained by being on top of one's powers, a state hard to maintain for an extended period of time. And a decline phase, while sad to behold, is where bands can generally make money, continuing to ply their trade to an audience growing behind recognition of past achievements. For it is the rare band to become dramatically better multiple albums into a career. Burning out is for purists, but fading away is only too human, especially if one has the desire to eat. And, except in the case of the Rolling Stones, the fade is generally not drawn out over a ridiculously excessive length of years, and allows us to do something we do not always manage: Rather than criticizing the fall of the mighty, let us look at where the ascent peaked, and be impressed with a high water mark most never reach. As a wise man once said, let us remember the good times. Kenny would have wanted it that way.