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As we drove down to Manchester, I had a tinge of guilt, as tonight I wasn’t representing Mudkiss but just going to watch a band with a good mate of mine, so had no real intention of undertaking a review.  My thought was to take a night off and just stand back and enjoy the gig.  As soon as you walk up to The Ritz however, the atmosphere of the building takes over.  Completely different to the modern structure of 53 degrees last week in Preston, The Ritz has a true historical feel as a club and live venue and even boasts having been managed by Jimmy Saville in the 1960’s.  Inside, there’s an element of slightly faded glamour, but this along with the sprung dance floor, high stage and balcony area make it a perfect place to watch rock n roll music.  


We arrived slightly late so only caught part of the Wintersleep support slot, but within a matter of minutes, I’d decided the night off was abandoned as I needed to express myself through words.  The Canadian band could easily be described as country rock, but there’s far, far more to this quintet than that would suggest.  A rhythm section as solid as The Rockies drive the songs along, with a fantastic drummer who’s facial expressions would make a grizzly nervous. Add into that a plaintive vocal, a good chunk of psychedelic guitar and a passage in one of the tracks that was pure Iron Maiden and you have something very special.  I’m sure I’ve come across Wintersleep before on the excellent BBC 6 music, but didn’t take the opportunity to explore their back catalogue, something I need to rectify very quickly.

A quick look around the audience before The Hold Steady take to the stage, explains a lot about the music of this band. Not many stick thin indie kids here tonight and certainly within the predominantly male gathering, there were a number of weather beaten, mature shall we say, rockers.  An image immediately appeared in the mind of rows and rows of bikes and trucks parked around the back of the venue. 

 I have to admit I’ve never been a big fan of The Hold Steady. I have two of their albums “Stay Positive” and “Heaven is Whenever,” both of which contain some great tracks, but can become quite “samey” and that’s tended to deter me from delving further.  The lure tonight was more about the reputation of their live show and as they launched into “Constructive Summer,” two aspects are immediately obvious.  Number one, The Hold Steady play loud, and I mean loud. This isn’t for the fainthearted as a great wall of noise rushes at you like a tidal wave and there’s absolutely no way of stopping it, until it naturally subsides after around an hour and a half.  Number 2, Craig Finn is one of modern rock’s great front men. In many ways, totally at odds with the music and the crowd, he looks akin to an embarrassing drunken Dad at a party, flailing around the stage with little conceivable rhythm. Between singing the lines, he mouths the lyrics like a hyper active Marcel Marceau and in some ways that exemplifies what The Hold Steady are all about, contradictions.  There’s is a big, powerful hard rock sound, but the songs aren’t really songs at all, they are short stories about the dark underbelly of American society and Finn takes us on a geographical tour of the U.S, delivering in a Springsteen like tone, but also in near spoken word form on a regular basis. 


Actually there’s also a third very apparent aspect, Manchester’s Hold Steady fans love this man and the affection also appears to be returned as Finn talks about playing and partying in the city with relish.   I don’t think I can ever remember, in my over 30 years of gig going, a front man look as though he’s enjoying himself so much and become as lost in his music.  If you walked past Craig Finn in the street, you wouldn’t give him a second glance, probably thinking he was an accountant on his way to the office.  Put a guitar in his hand, a microphone in front of him and an adoring mass of people analysing his every move however, and he turns into a whirling dervish of energy and it’s difficult to drag your eyes away from stage centre.   

That’s not to say, that the band don’t also play their part.  The Hold Steady are exceptionally tight, musicians who certainly know their way around their instruments. A fantastic rhythm section is joined by some truly outstanding guitar work from the twin lead attack and Finn stands in mock (or is it actual) orgasmic awe during some of the soloing.  On the subject of the guitars, I’ve heard a lot of Les Pauls played over the years, but the sound that Tad Kubler entices out of his Sunburst finish is just outstanding.  It feels like Kubler has reached out one of his burly, tattooed arms, grabbed you by the throat, dragged you onto the stage and slammed you face first right into the Marshall amp and is holding you down, waiting for your eardrums to burst.  A truly incredible and invigorating noise and it’s no surprise to read that Tad has been brought up on the likes of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. 


I really wish I could give a complete run down of all the songs this evening, but due to the fact the band don’t play with a set list and my lack of knowledge of the majority of their recordings, I can only highlight the following.  Along with “Constructive Summer,” there were crashing versions of “Stay Positive” and “Sequestered in Memphis,” during which I even entered the relatively polite mosh pit, (another sign of the age range of the revellers,) partly to try and obtain some decent photos, but mainly because it looked like bloody good fun, and on a more sedate note a gorgeous version of “Sweet Part of the City.”

Usually, not being aware of the material when watching a band can be constrictive to the enjoyment but in The Hold Steady’s case, it hardly mattered.  This was live music at it’s most energetic, raw and invigorating.  No big light show, just a bloody great band, playing bloody loudly.   Along with The Jim Jones Revue, these guys are the real deal when it comes to an honest to goodness rock n roll show.

The comment of the night came as we left The Ritz , with one fan proclaiming, “That was brilliant but it’s played fucking havoc with my tinnitus.” 

There are probably a lot of people around the Manchester area today who are worried they’ve picked up the same affliction.  I know I am.

Review/video/photos by Andy Barnes