Talk about a bait-n-switch: The main drawing power behind A Positive Rage, the new live CD/DVD documenting the exploits of the joyful noisemakers in The Hold Steady circa 2006, should be the tour documentary. Generally speaking, live albums tend to be geared towards hardcore fans to begin with, either because of nostalgia (my mom was at the taping of David Bowie’s David Live; I was at tapings for Bouncing Souls and The Early November) or rarities. Sure, some artists like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and James Brown cut legendary live albums, but most of the time the buyer ends up with tinny-sounding versions of previously released/better recorded songs. And while A Positive Rage the CD isn’t as good as Live at the Apollo or as bad as, say, any live Aerosmith record ever, it’s still not transcendent enough to warrant purchasing. That’s why A Positive Rage the DVD needs to be great. What it ends up being is repetitive and mildly hammy.
There’s showing and there’s telling, and A Positive Rage does a whole lot of the latter. Spliced between genuinely good live footage are discussions about the band’s appeal. Most of these clips are reiterations of “They’re fun/happy/drunk!” Some people mention the band smiling a lot. And it gets old 15 minutes in. Far more fascinating are the all-too-brief deeper glimpses into the band, like when Craig Finn breaks down his musical influences (This guy loves The Replacements) and how he found his singing voice. He’s honest enough with himself to even discuss the limitations and attractions of his speak/sing style. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who coined the collection’s title, offers way more eloquent explanations of why the band is fun regardless of which side of the stage someone is on. And that mustache! Exchanges between the band and kids are also funny. But the majority of the clips are redundant, almost cocky, in their love for the group. It’s like an infomercial.
Even though the documentary is a dud, though, those who’ve already committed to A Positive Rage can enjoy the live record, which was recorded in Chicago. The quality starts out iffy on “Stuck Between Sessions” – the sound is ho-hum and Finn flubs a few lines – but it recovers quickly. Once it congeals, fans get all of the things they love about The Hold Steady – big guitars, chiming piano, and master storyteller Finn. While the listener won’t always necessarily feel it, he and/or she can tell it was a good night. The live setting peels back some of Boys and Girls in America’s sheen, but replaces it with way drunker, more slurred vocals. It’s faster and sloppier; more alive but less cohesive. What it isn’t, however, is something worth recommending to the uninitiated or the devoted. There’s a better way to hear “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” or “First Night,” and it involves buying the studio albums bearing them.