The Hold Steady, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

Someone walking in off the street might wonder at first what this camply flapping, foggy-spectacled, middle-aged nerd is doing at the microphone. But Craig Finn crosses early Woody Allen with early Bruce Springsteen.

His physical affectations compensate for his lack of actual insensate excess these days – toned down because "killer parties almost killed us," as he sings on "Stay Positive". The play-acting is anyway shucked off as his band The Hold Steady hit their greased groove, and remind you just how fine a thinking, dancing rock band can be.

Finn's jagged observational poetry majors in drugs, sexual realism and faith in rock'n'roll. Lyrical fragments fall out of the bar-band barrage as if overheard on the record-player that Finn's character, bloody-nosed Mary, makes skip. Lyrics evoke careening nights out in the band's Minnesota home state. "She's always funny in the mornings," goes one line, "She isn't always funny in the night." Some of the details seem improbably retro, like the florid, rock rumble couplets of Born to Run-era Boss. But then, I've never been to Minnesota.

The Hold Steady's faith in rock is a reaffimation for the older fans here, while the rituals are fleshed out for new converts. This thing is third or fourth generation now, and The Hold Steady don't hide it. Instead, like a great Western, they draw their strength from the tradition. It's more than pastiche however, because once this band make you move rock'n'roll becomes real again.

The Hold Steady take a running jump at "Rock Problems". There's a whiplash spark of electricity from a guitar before "The Weekenders", where a good-natured swirl in the stalls is fuelled by the band's snorting interjections. Though these songs have as mature a perspective on closing-time casualties as their sound does on rock music itself, what matters in the end is that The Hold Steady mean it and we feel it. Ultimately, this show is rock as an act of memory, and an act of love.