I Meant To Listen To: The Hold Steady, “Separation Sunday”

The first time I came across The Hold Steady was in the summer of 2008. They were playing a free show at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, and the only way you could get in was by signing up for a new social media website called going.com. The memory of the site is fuzzy and I cannot find any additional information whatsoever on the internet, but I remember going.com was a sort of hybrid of MySpace and Facebook where you link up to bands and venues and then connect with other fans. I think? It wasn’t long for this world.

So, at that show in 2008, there were more tickets issued for the event than what the Paradise could hold. After getting my ticket scanned, I was unable to move any further for an additional ten minutes and was not able to even make my way onto the floor. I love going to shows where the crowd and band are jam-packed, but this instance was too much for me. I left the venue long before The Hold Steady took the stage.

A few months later, I was set to see them perform again, this time with the Drive-By Truckers opening for them. Again, I was unable to go to that show as well. Nine Inch Nails had rescheduled their show from August to the same date and I was left to decide which show to go to. I chose to go see NIN, and I still don’t regret that decision, but damn, The Hold Steady AND Drive-By Truckers playing together?!

I still haven’t seen The Hold Steady perform live, and I need to remedy that as soon as I can. Ever since hearing Craig Finn deliver his sermon to my ears for the first time on 2008’s Stay Positive, I have wondered what it’s like to experience that live. I feel that Finn taps into the same wavelength as Bruce Springsteen, but for my generation. The ones who grew up in the 90’s with hip-hop, pop-punk, and dunkaroos.

To compare The Hold Steady to Springsteen is fairly common with good reason; both champion the down-trodden working class everyman with lush, vivid storytelling extolling the power of rock and roll. In fact, The Hold Steady’s version of Atlantic City remains one of my favorite covers. It made an amazing song even better with their own style added to it.

Where does Separation Sunday fit into all this? Their second studio album made it onto my iTunes but never got any play for some reason. All I knew and listened to from the album was the track “Stevie Nix“, where Finn speak-sings about a girl and alternating what it would be like to live the ages of seventeen or thirty-three forever.

After actually listening to the album with attentive ears, it becomes clear that Separation Sunday is a story that weaves the paths of several characters over eleven tracks. Heavy themes such as addiction and religion are addressed and are tackled in a raw, unapologetic way. The characters are constantly battling with a sense of one’s belonging, all while trying to get the most out of what life has to offer.

The execution of Separation Sunday showcases the band’s strengths to tell riveting stories with a fabulous soundtrack. The level of songwriting is off the charts and there is no doubt that the members of The Hold Steady are master of the craft. The band takes these songs to an almost theatrical level and I wonder if the stories of Holly, Charlemagne, and Gideon ever made it onto some off-off Broadway production.

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