Viewed from above, from one of Koko's balcony boxes, The Hold Steady's audience resembles nothing so much as a giant box of eggs, such is the preponderance of bald thirty and forty-something men in attendance.
This observation isn’t intended as snark, more as a comment upon how the Brooklyn band’s songs of experience have connected so strongly with a fan base who’ve lived a little and have the bruises, scars and wrinkles to prove it. The appeal is obvious: Craig Finn’s songs often have their roots in days gone by, when life seemed a little simpler, a little less of a struggle, a little more hopeful and idealistic than now. Like fellow travellers The Gaslight Anthem, The Hold Steady have been accused of presenting a Springsteen-lite ‘heritage rock’ vision of America’s past that is overly sentimental, but the criticism is harsh, for there’s a truth to Finn’s songwriting that transcends mere sepia-tinged nostalgia.
Whatever, tonight is nothing if not a celebration in the here and now. Towards the end of the set Finn looks out at the packed room and shouts “There is so much joy in what we do here!”, an exclamation that sounds horribly corny in print, but neatly encapsulates the vibe of the evening. The geeky Finn might be a terribly awkward-looking live performer – think 1980s Elvis Costello with no motor neuron control – but his enthusiasm and energy is infectious, and his band are sharp as tacks, shifting mood and tone masterfully. A set that leans heavily upon 2006’s Boys And Girls in America album, kicks off with the evocative Your Little Hoodrat Friend and rarely dips, borne aloft by raised fists and raised voices throughout. There are tales here of punk rock adolescence, of nights spent drinking with the wrong girl at the right time, of dreams, of drugs, of heartbreak and regret and confusion and sex. I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You is a brilliant reflection upon the clash between reality and nostalgia (“There was a side of this city I didn’t want you to see…”), Constructive Summer raises a glass to ‘Saint’ Joe Strummer (“I think he might have been our only decent teacher”) and Stay Positive references the early ‘80s hardcore scene (“When the Youth of Today and early Seven Seconds taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons”) while looking ahead to a time when “the kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own and the singalong songs will be our scriptures”, a lyric with obvious resonance for many here.
It climaxes with a cover of the Violent Femmes, American Music, a wistful and witty tale of doomed love and lost promise, which doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for a wild, beer-throwing hoedown, but ends the night rather perfectly. And then 1300 people pour out onto the streets of North London, smiling and sweating, and feeling just that little bit more capable of dealing with their own little life dramas than they were 90 minutes previously.