A Stellar Show In The Face of Poor Sound

There's no doubt that The Hold Steady are one of the biggest bands to emerge this year and sets at Glastonbury, Latitude, T In The Park and more are sure to cement this reputation, so an evening's show in London is a promising prospect. Unfortunately for The Hold Steady, Shepherd's Bush Empire is out to get them with sound quality so dire that the incisive lyrics turn into a muggy holler at the best of times; it's impossible to even make out the support band's name and it hardly improves when the Brookyln band take to the stage.

Singer Craig Finn could turn a funeral into a rousing celebration with his hyperactive gestures, he's practically an ad against e-numbers and once you get past his flustered enthusiasm that makes you glad you're not related to him - think of uncles dancing at weddings - you'll be won over by his all out animation. From opener, 'Stuck Between Stations' the crowd are caught up in the furied flurry of rock with accordions and harmonicas thrown in by keyboardist Franz Nicolay, notably on the sunny 'Southtown Girls' which turns into a rowdy sing-a-long backed by harmonica trills. The crowd are ever enthusiastic, eagerly adding in the "woohs" in current single, 'Chips Ahoy', these are probably louder and clearer than poor Finn's vocals, but there's not much that could be done about that.

There's a fair mix of new tunes from the band's current album, 'Boys And Girls In America' and older releases, including the smart, 'Barfruit Blues', these seem equally well known to the majority of the crowd as the new material, perhaps due to the recent retrospective release of two of the band's previous albums in the UK. It's the new tunes that prove the highlights of the evening though, in the intro to 'You Can Make Him Like You', Finn says that he hopes this statement rings true for us before kicking off into another surefire hit. During the welcome encore the band dedicate a tune to an ex-alcoholic fan who has recently celebrated being sober for a year and says that The Hold Steady's music helps him; there is a strange sense of antithesis in this and in the band themselves. They sing about drink and drugs and gambling and girls and boys, but they're not cool, they won't be on the cover of NME and conversely, that makes them all the more unique. An acoustic rendition of, 'Citrus' is an encore treat, with its triumphant cries of, "I've had kisses that make Judas seems sincere", while the mellow festival anthem 'Chillout Tent' signals a summer of shows for the band. Let's hope they have better luck with the sound! Indeed The Hold Steady almost killed me, but mostly through frustration at not being able to appreciate the performance they were offering fully due to the technical shambles.