You Shoulda Been There

So you're out at a club on a Monday night, and you're conflicted. You're having a great time, feeling sort of like you're playing hooky because it's 11 p.m., you're drinking a beer and you're not a

So you're out at a club on a Monday night, and you're conflicted. You're having a great time, feeling sort of like you're playing hooky because it's 11 p.m., you're drinking a beer and you're not asleep. On the other hand, you're clearly among the five oldest people in the club and you catch yourself occasionally calculating how much sleep you could get if you went home at that particular moment.

You mentally pat yourself on the back for chucking the routine and seeing a band on a Monday of all nights, but you can't shake the image of the front lawn needing to be mowed.

You glance at the group of sweaty guys in front of the stage clapping and yelling for the headliner band, and you wonder if you were that stupid when you were that age. You smile and wish you were that young and stupid again.

And then the music starts, and all the thinking stops.

The band plays the first song off their latest album, the only album of theirs you know, and it's good. The sweaty guys jump up and down and sing along. The musicians are smiling and joking.

You even know some of the words.

It's really good.

You're with some people you know, and you see others you know. The band plays more songs you're familiar with, and the lead singer is so happy and bubbly you can't help but laugh.

The sweaty guys are mimicking the singer's arm motions and hand claps, shouting the lyrics back to him. The keyboardist is encouraging audience participation on the chorus.

It's live Rock & Roll. It's loud. It's fun.

On the songs you don't know, you can't really make out what they're singing about. It doesn't matter.

Your mind wanders to other shows in other clubs in other years. You remember key concerts in your life and start to connect the dots.

The band you're seeing, The Hold Steady, has been compared a little to Bruce Springsteen, your favorite musician. Their keyboard-and-guitar sound and their story songs remind you — and lots of music critics — of the E Street Band's early albums.

You've read that Springsteen is a fan of The Hold Steady, and they played at a recent Springsteen tribute concert at Carnegie Hall. You've seen the jumpy YouTube clip of the all-star finale of "Rosalita," and there's Hold Steady singer Craig Finn sharing vocals with Springsteen himself.

The morning after the Monday night show, you're driving to work listening to WNKU (89.7 FM). Coming out of a news break, Michael Grayson asks you to pretend you're in London in 1975 and you're at the Hammersmith Odeon listening to a young Bruce Springsteen. The concert is captured on a live CD Springsteen released a couple of years ago.

The audience noise comes up on the radio, and after a brief noodling intro the signature guitar and saxophone sound launches into, yes, "Rosalita." Are you serious?

The song takes you back to summer vacations on the Jersey shore and reminds you in ways that words can't express how certain music is associated with key moments in your life. You get a shiver, as you always do, when you sing along to "Play some pool, skip some school, act real cool, stay out all night, it's gonna feel alright."

But you don't know any of this back in the club on Monday night because it's still Monday night. You're kind of hoping that Finn will break out "Rosalita" in the encores. He doesn't.

But there's nothing to be disappointed about. These guys are harmonizing on backup "Ooohs" and "Aaahs" and name-checking Minneapolis, their home town, in almost every song.

Mostly they're having fun. They're enjoying themselves.

Almost every conversation about music eventually gets around to a comparison of lists of bands you used to like but don't any more. Often they're acts you discovered when they were just starting out, and you grew up with them. At some point you grew apart and you each moved on.

The easy assumption you try to pin on the other person in the conversation is that he's a music snob and lost interest in a band once they became popular. There's usually some truth to that.

But standing there in the club you also come to realize that bands just starting out seem to be having fun and, when they become successful, they don't look like they're having as much fun.

You've seen plenty of big-time acts play big-time stages and put on great shows, and they appear to be enjoying the moment and connecting with the audience. That show just might be the single biggest highlight of their professional career, but you doubt it.

They say bands spend an entire lifetime writing their first album and a year or two writing their next one. They say that hunger for success, love or recognition is what drives great songwriters and, when the goal is achieved, inspiration can quickly dry up.

And they also tell plenty of stories about how four buddies from Liverpool or Compton or Athens, Ga., start off as a band and end up a corporation, with all the legal and business entanglements that come along with success. Fun ends up way down on the "to do" list.

So you watch the sweaty guys pick each other up and try some brief crowd surfing, which amuses the band. The guitarist asks everyone — meaning the sweaty guys — to be considerate of their neighbors. They comply.

The guitarist climbs up on the speakers on the front of the stage, and someone hands up his guitar, which he plays a good 10 or 12 feet up in the air. You think it's a pretty cool sight on a Monday night.

You decide right then and there to scrap the editorial you were going to write about downtown development or public transportation or neighborhood business districts or some other pertinent topic and maybe write about a dude playing guitar on top of some speakers in front of a bunch of sweaty guys.

Because too often you forget that really good live music played in a small club is more important than just about anything else.

Contact john fox: jfox(at)

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