The Hold Steady, Electric Ballroom, London

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The Independent Culture

If it's worth saying once, it's worth saying again. As tonight's gig hits its passionately messy close, Craig Finn, The Hold Steady's frontman, repeats a line he's said before: "There is," he says, pounding at his heart like a man either declaring undying passion or the need for a doctor, "so much joy in what we do up here."

He's not kidding, either. The band have spent 90 minutes grinning furiously and slugging on beer for dear life, all but mainlining Pentecostal fervour over 18 songs. If they aren't loving this, they're doing a damn good impression of it.

The last year has seen The Hold Steady scale giddy heights. Released in January, their third album, Boys and Girls in America, was welcomed as the missing link between the testimonial turmoil of early Springsteen, Jim Steinman's piano-fired rock operas, the Replacements' bar-room swagger, Hüsker Dü's ragged punk passion and, in its lyrical tales of characters living every moment like it's their last, Jack Kerouac. Meanwhile, their gigs have fuelled that fire, every show approached and praised as evidence of the regenerative powers of rock'*'roll, for band and audience.

Finn plays the "I'm one of you" card majestically tonight, ensuring that the joy isn't just felt on stage. The gig is more celebration than performance, its impetus being the sense that a rock show shouldn't be a recital but an occasion for communal catharsis.

On the opener, "Hot Soft Light", Finn sings "we started drinking" like a man on a mission, twitching about the stage like he's wired to the mains, and throws his arms open to the crowd like a preacher offering salvation. Ninety minutes later, he declares that the soundman, the roadies and the audience are "all The Hold Steady". The gig in between convinces us that there's no half measures in his belief.

Crucially, nothing about their stage presence betrays a hint of studied cool. Portly, thinning of hair and 30-plus, Finn looks like a gone-to-seed children's TV presenter and trades licks with the guitarist, Tad Kubler, like a teenager living out his fantasies. Franz Nicolay, the keyboard player, sports a panto-villain moustache and generates industrial levels of camp when he raises his eyebrows for the "usually one or two" harmonies on "Massive Nights". If this band spied anything resembling "cool" in a song, you suspect they'd slap a guitar solo, a piano break and a reference to Meat Loaf on top, before sending it packing with a big, dumb grin on its face.

That sounds like a guilty pleasure, but this is not a band who waste time or energy on the "guilt" in that equation. When Finn sings "Lord, to be 17 forever" on "Stevie Nix", he recasts rock's craving for eternal youth as a yearning to live every second to the full, channelled into every note and lyric.

Tonight's opening salvo alone plays like a sprint for the finishing line, or like Kerouac's ideal made flesh: a band mad to live, mad to be saved, never yawning and never saying a commonplace thing.

And Finn never writes a commonplace lyric. Each song packs an epiphanic punch. On "Hot Soft Light," the one-two couplet of "It started recreational / it ended kinda medical" is as concise a drug lyric as any. Come the encore, "First Night" takes on the tenor of an impassioned elegy for good times slipping by, a bittersweet sense of time's passage evoked by the line "We can't get as high as we got on that first night". "Certain Songs" suggests they'll keep trying, though, sifting childhood memories of Billy Joel and Meat Loaf to incinerate notions of cool over the flame of a fundamental rock'*'roll truth: "Certain songs, they get scratched into our souls." The Hold Steady aspire to no less than that. They get there, too.

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