FEATURE: The Hold Steady Resurrect Bar Room Rock

Craig Finn of The Hold Steady is a member of a dying breed of writers; the bar-room poet. Finn’s words talk of betting on the ponies, high school dances, acid trips and religion while introducing us to some of the most well developed characters in modern rock music. After a short time with The Hold Steady you feel like you know Charlemagne, the strung out addict, Gideon, the skinhead, and Holly, the hoodrat who found religion. Finn has a way of telling a story that really worms its way into your soul.

With lyrics like “If they ask about Charlemagne be polite and say something vague,” or “Holly was a sexy mess. She looked strung out but experienced,” he ushers you into the world of “Penetration Park,” “The Party Pit,” “Ybor City” and “Hostile Massachusetts.” It isn’t a world that many of us would venture into on our own but hand-in-hand with The Hold Steady it’s a hell of a ride.

This world that Finn has created is set to a soundtrack of raucous barroom rock that is largely masterminded by guitarist Tad Kubler and keyboardist Frank Nicolay. Despite lyrics riddled with adolescent angst, it’s this raw sound that attracted a more mature fanbase to the band when they were first playing together. “As we get bigger there are more young faces in the crowd but when we were starting out it was people our own age who were coming to the shows,” Finn said in a recent interview with Listen Up Denver! as he rode a train from New York to Boston.

“The kind of rock-n-roll we play references the E Street band, The Replacements and other bands that people our age probably grew up with.” Finn continued. “We basically make music that we would want to hear. At 36 years old there are a lot of people that have taken different paths than I have in life. A lot of the people that I went to college with have 3 kids, a big house, a good job, a mortgage, dogs . . . all that. Those were the people that I would get into rock-n-roll with when I was a kid so when you look at it that way it is not entirely surprising that they are into our music today.”

In 2004 Finn and his bandmates dropped the first sampling of their brand of rock in the form of Almost Killed Me. The album introduced us to Holly, Gideon, Charlemagne and several of the other characters and themes that appear repeatedly in many of Finn’s lyrics. While many critics and fans speculate that he writes from personal experience Finn is quick to put that notion to rest. “People have this idea of a songwriter as someone who is always telling the truth,” he said. “The characters in my songs are kind of archetypes that can move the story along. They all represent different types of people. One character isn’t based on one particular person in my life and while personal experience does influence my writing, I am not writing about my life.”

Instead, Finn plays the role of a narrator who is telling tales about the lives and experiences of young men and women as they struggle to find their identities. The lives he is writing about are frequently inextricably tied to drugs, wild parties and promiscuous sexual experiences. Basically just a beer drinking guy himself, Finn maintains that these stories are not autobiographical and that he tends to focus on the tumultuous lives of young adults because of the perspective he can bring to their situations.

“I’m 36 right now and can look back and see what is unique about being 17. When you’re that age you are just starting to have a lot of freedom and people are starting to treat you like and adult. You might have a car and you might be living alone for the first time. You think you know everything but you don’t. Turns out you’re really pretty stupid,” he chuckled. “There is potential to get into all this trouble and I think that’s why I find that age fascinating to write about.”

A prolific songwriter, Finn and his band have cranked out 3 complete albums in their relatively brief history together. With Almost Killed Me in 2004, Separation Sunday in 2005 and most recently the critical darling Boys and Girl in America in 2006, the band has been on a remarkable pace that couldn’t last. “2007 will be the first year without a new record for The Hold Steady,” Finn said, confirming what many have suspected. “Things really caught on in Europe this year and we hadn’t really had that part of the world in our touring schedule before. As a result we effectively doubled our touring and spent a ton of time in England, France, Germany and Scandinavia this year. We’re hoping to have a record out in Spring of 2008.”

The success in Europe came as a bit of a surprise to the band. “I think that we all thought we’d be starting over in the European market but almost right away it got up to the level we are at in the states,” Finn said. “Some of the bigger shows that we’ve been able to play have been in the UK are at least as big as the ones we play in the big cities in the US.” It is looking like The Hold Steady can expect that the new record, when it does hit shelves, will receive an enormous amount of attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

After a hectic summer of touring and playing some huge festivals, this fall has provided a rare break from the road for the band and they have taken advantage of the time to work on some new material that may land on the new album. “We have been writing a lot on this break and we’re trying to get some new songs together to road test on the upcoming tour with Art Brut,” Finn revealed.

The tour, dubbed “NME Rock-N-Roll Riot Tour,” will be bouncing around the country for a month with the two bands being supported by a hand picked opening act each night. “Art Brut reached out to us after getting turned on to our music,” he said. “They wanted to come over to the states and partner with someone for a tour supporting their new record. I am a fan of theirs and the call couldn’t have come at a better time for us. We were looking to step it up a notch for this tour as it is our third one for this record in the states and jumped at the suggestion of teaming up. We play last every night but their set will be pretty long as well as it is basically a co-headline.”

With two acts on the bill whose popularity is currently surging as they resurrect classic barroom rock, this is not a tour for the weak of heart. Hailing from England Art Brut mirrors The Hold Steady in their raw sound, outrageous energy and front man Eddie Argos’s vocal delivery. While neither singer has a classically beautiful voice they have both harnessed what they’ve got and are using it to the best of their ability to communicate with who ever will listen.

People are obviously listening as several shows on the tour have sold out in advance and fans are coming out of the woodwork. Even Bruce Springsteen, one of Finn’s heroes and obvious influences, revealed himself to be a fan of The Hold Steady at his own tribute concert. He handed Finn the reigns to his classic “Rosalita” and stood by like a proud papa as The Hold Steady vocalist nailed the first two verses before standing back and letting Damon Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy) take over.

Are Finn and his bandmates the second coming of The E Street Band as some have speculated? No. There’s no doubt they draw inspiration from Little Steven Van Zandt and the rest of Springsteen’s crew, but they are The Hold Steady; a truly unique band that loves every minute doing playing rock-n-roll that will leave you breathless and begging for more.

Spectate If You Gravitate:

  • Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band
  • The Replacements
  • Ted Leo and The Pharmacists
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Who Is Timothy Dwenger

Music has always been a part of my life. It probably all started listening to old Grateful Dead, Peter Paul & Mary, and Simon & Garfunkel records that my parents had, but it wasn't long before they were taking me to concerts like Starship, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Huey Lewis & The News. I got the bug to write about music after reviewing an Eric Clapton concert for a creative writing project in high school but didn't really take it up seriously until 2002. Since then I have published countless articles in The Marquee Magazine and done some work for Jambase.com, SPIN Magazine, and various other outlets. I started Listen Up Denver! as a way to share the music information that is constantly spilling out of my head with people who care. Please enjoy!