The Hold Steady make the scene, live the scene, and they set the scene perfectly in a half empty former railway-station in eastern Paris on a warm October night.
The band and the venue, La Fleche D’Or, gelled perfectly: quirky, scuzzy, yet welcoming, redolent of rock n roll and shady bathroom dealings.
The room was half-empty, mainly ex-pats or travelling fans (it’s gotta be difficult to follow frontman Craig Finn’s intricate storytelling lyrics if French is your first language) but it was full of heart, and the closeness of the band combined with the confines of the old wrought iron building to create a wonderful intimacy.
The band are touring their sixth album now, and they dug through their back catalogue almost from first to last: druggy, messed up tales of low-life and salvation, backed by chugging blue collar rock, fading from punkily hard to melancholically soft, with singalong choruses bursting from between densely verbal verses.
The Hold Steady are cult stars in the UK these days, but they still wore their bar band credentials solidly on their sleeves, drums pounding out hard on songs like Spinners and Constructive Summer, old school guitar solos, and everyone joining in for the ‘whoah’s’ and the big choruses, smiles and camaraderie in which everyone shared.
There were no special effects or fancy visuals, just downright rock and a devotion to the craft, and the crowd returned it tenfold, singing, clapping, joining in whenever they could. You could feel the passion in the air, no hangers-on, everyone was there for the band, for the scene, for the music and the moment.
Finn was full of conspiratorial winks and smiles, riffing off his lyrics. This is a band well loved because of the love they give back, and that was apparent in everything they did. In a pause, following Magazines, he took a moment to thank the audience for their part, how glad he was that they came out to dance on a Friday night, rather than staying at home, in their online existence, and it seemed heartfelt and true.
After seeing it all through to the finish, they closed with an anthemic, bar-room and beers-in-the-air Stay Positive, thrashing their instruments to within an inch of their lives, before returning moments later for the encore.
Citrus was given an added forlorn twist by Craig’s crooning and a western tinged guitar sound, and Chips Ahoy pulled no punches.
The whole thing left me on my knees, an almost gut-punch reaction to the friendship and love and faith and community in the room.
Postscript: After the song we spoke to the singer
The Hold Steady are a true community band, and their following is immensely close. I was raised from the floor (I had accidentally been drinking quadruples) by the promise of beer from an ever so friendly guy, who knew the band, followed them everywhere, and just WOULD NOT STOP buying drinks for everyone. His name is Howard, and his story shows how much the band return to their fans, once playing a gig in his living room.
He bought the drinks, we drank the drinks, he bought more. We caught Craig, and bassist Galen, and there were just more drinks, til the band hopped the bus, and we wended our way past the old rock graveyard that is Pere Lachaise, until finally Howard accepted one damn drink in return.
I had hitched from South West England for this* and run in late to the gig, but felt truly grateful to be just one small part of the experience. The band play songs in which faith plays one big part, the one part I can never understand, but if the music scene is a religion, seeing that band is a revelation.
*This post – obfuscated by booze and time – is a paltry recollection of a wonderful night, pieced together by notes written while hitching and a typed letter – since lost – which contained a sketch of the ideas and feelings. It barely represents a percentage.