For anyone new to the Hold Steady looking for a point of breaking and entering on Stay Positive, start with “Sequestered in Memphis.” It’s as immediate and infectious as “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” The same goes for the title track. Musically, two songs are real standouts: a guitar solo provides a plaintive wail on behalf of the rocky couple on “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” while the harpsichord becomes the voice of the protagonist on “One for the Cutters.” The instruments aid and abet Finn as he articulates the inner turmoil of his characters’ lives.
“Stay Positive is about taking your youthful ideals and putting them up against real-life problems and hopefully not losing all of those ideals but also becoming an adult,” said Finn. “This record is about the attempt to age gracefully.”
For the third year in a row, the decommissioned pool at McCarren Park is hosting a series of summer concerts that brings out the hipsters and parents from Brooklyn and the surrounding boroughs. The urban limbo of the pool would make a good prison yard, but when there are shows, it swells with people in various degrees of undress enjoying the Slip ’n’ Slide, playing dodgeball, lounging on blankets, and, when the music starts, jumping up and crowding the stage. There are a lot of flip-flops and advanced fashions, a lot of tats and hats.
On the day the Hold Steady were scheduled to play McCarren, thunderstorms pummeled the pavement throughout the afternoon. Their set started around six, and the band—which includes Franz Nicolay on keyboards, Bobby Drake on drums, and Galen Polivka on bass—played hard and loud for about an hour and a half. Finn was as restless physically as his pen is lyrically. He looked to be chasing down the mike at every turn, as if it were a frisky cartoon character constantly eluding his grasp. The rest of the band played with equal intensity, and several times, with an eerie and unchoreographed spontaneity, everyone onstage broke into … not momentary grins but boyish and lasting smiles.
The weather had cleared by then, and I looked behind me at a packed and undulating crowd. They, too, were smiling. The new songs from Stay Positive concern more addiction, forsaken dreams, jilted lovers, desperation, and nostalgia—but Finn and the band kept the energy so high, had so much infectious fun, that nearly everyone pumped their fists in the air at one point or another, everyone sang along, and all those distinctions between indie and arena, rock and punk, lick and groove, high and hangover, authenticity and affectation, hipster and parent, boy and girl, they no longer mattered.