"I have seen the future of rock'n'roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen," it was famously said of the Boss at the beginning. The Hold Steady have instead seen rock's ever more weighty past, early Springsteen especially, and taken it for their own.
They are a literate bar band, mostly, in the mould of fellow Minneapolitans The Replacements. Their third album, Boys and Girls in America, takes its title from Kerouac, and its sound and vision from Born to Run, Springsteen's most baroque, experimental statement about teen life as timeless Americana. That isn't really enough to explain the transatlantic buzz that's swiftly building around a band with little connection to any musical movement of the last 30 years. Even the album itself doesn't tell you the whole story, groaning though it is with road-trip riffs and word-drunk tales. The Hold Steady are entirely about the shameless, fervent fun of playing live. Their most vital connection to rock'n'roll's past is the belief that the music is meant for profound parties.
Tonight is The Hold Steady's first UK gig as any kind of known quantity (they played once before in London, in 2004). They enter bathed in the eerie blue light that characterised Springsteen's legendary 1975 Hammersmith Odeon debut, and one look tells you a lot. Singer-lyricist Craig Finn is the unshaven, fevered amateur intellectual at the back of the small-town class. With his spectacles and geeky demeanour, he recalls that other unlikely front man, Randy Newman. You wouldn't fantasise about being him, as with a normal rock star. Instead, he invites you to share his own fantasies, which make up his music. The group's only charisma comes from keyboardist Franz Nicolay, whose hooded eyes, curled moustache and gulps from a bottle of wine visually recall the dissolute rock critic Lester Bangs, who would surely have loved The Hold Steady. Not least because they keep laughing, as they seem to constantly recall just how great it is to play rock'n'roll. It is as if they are still fans, watching themselves.
"Stuck Between Stations" opens with references to On the Road's Sal Paradise, drink and the radio, and another sense in which this band are a throwback occurs. They do not inhabit a homogeneous MTV world, but seem exotically American, singing songs of somewhere utterly different from rainy Manchester. Perhaps that's why there are already so many gleeful converts here, from a balding headbanger to intently nodding students. The Bukowskiesque girl with a gift for betting on the horses of "Chips Ahoy", and the frank sexual politics of "You Can Make Him Like You" ("Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers... you don't have a problem, until you start sleeping alone"), give a taste of Finn's literary bent, which goes beyond the music's pastiche. His fascination with dismissive drink-and-drug-gulping women approaches the epic on "Party Pit", and reaches its knowing conclusion in "Massive Nights": "Well, those girls come apart with the setting sun."
But it's "Hot Soft Light"'s shiver of cymbals and blam of big-riffing guitars that matters more. By this time, The Hold Steady are starting to swing, hitting a natural, swirling groove that outweighs words. Guitarist Tad Kubler mixes his sweat with Finn's on a soggy towel, louchely lights a cigarette, and tosses dollar bills into the crowd. "Aah, to be 17 forever..." Finn sighs on "Stevie Nicks". "To be 34 forever," the 35-year-old adds, summing up the strange time-warp in which The Hold Steady live.
Before "Southtown Girls", Finn considers the musical heritages of Minneapolis and Manchester, a history lesson which helps the latter punch the air to a song about neighbourhood girls in the former. "How a Resurrection Really Feels" concludes things with delicate xylophone chimes, which suggest waking from a childhood dream, and the rearing guitars of a teenage one. The Hold Steady stick around afterwards for a party to which everyone is invited, which just about sums them up.
Touring to 26 February ( www.theholdsteady.com)