The Hold Steady are a bunch of old bastards.

Visiting Melbourne for the third time on Friday, this Brooklyn-based four-piece (which swells to a five-piece for tours) play the kind of simple, harmony-heavy, ridiculously catchy rock that went out of fashion a long time ago. It’s hard to interpret what they do as anything but a throwback to a bygone era of Sprinsgteen-esque theatricality, with big singalong choruses, heartfelt lyrics, and all-guy harmonies.

Theirs is a self-consciously nostalgic style – especially given the continual references to 1990s iconography in their lyrics – but it’s filtered through the present, and through the US indie tradition, in an interesting fashion creating a certain tension in The Hold Steady. There’s something a bit untimely about them – and that’s why they’re bloody great.

In the sweaty confines of the venue which was filled to the brim, they kicked off with Constructive Summer, the rollicking opener from 2008’s Stay Positive, frontman Craig Finn and his Converse-wearing bandmates plowing through an uptempo set with passion and sly humour. Rollicking tracks like Sequestered in Memphis, First Night and Magazines went down a treat with the crowd, who didn’t need much convincing to get on board this juggernaut.

The set was long and lively, as the fans have come to expect. Finn worked the crowd like a pro, eliciting drunken singalongs at all the right moments.

Some of the more textured and jagged tracks, like Southtown Girls, took on a new meaning as we got to see the band play around a bit with the instrumentation and delivery. Even some of the weaker material from last year’s Heaven is Whenever – not this scribe’s favourite of their albums – came alive in this setting.

Finn is an unusual but appealing stage presence, twisting around the mic in a goofy kind of way, and charming the audience with self-deprecating quips. The mix of musical machismo and nervous nerdiness works a treat. Toward the end of the set he told a story about his impending 40th birthday – something that many of the mostly-male crowd will soon be experiencing, judging from the receding hairlines of many punters.

That’s Finn for you: giving the crowd a glimpse of the eternal rock present that we all want to believe is possible.  There’s nothing young and sexy about them –  The Hold Steady are old bastards, and long may they live.

–        Teco D Benson