Home for the Holidays with the Hold Steady

The latest, greatest success from the Twin Cities returns to the wellspring of its creativity

The State Theater opened on Hennepin Avenue in the winter of 1921 with a silent film and a newsreel projected onto what was then the largest movie screen west of the Mississippi River. Over the stage there was—and still is—a sepia paradise scene called "bountiful nudes." A cloth covered the mural for much of the '80s when the theater was under the ownership of Jesus People Church. Today the Hennepin Theatre Trust owns it. The nudes are nude again and six ornate—and original—chandeliers pour light over 2,000 red velvet seats where, one Thursday evening last month, 2,000 bodies sit in anticipation of the Hold Steady, who are gathered in a dark hallway by a stage door, pacing, stretching, drinking, and waiting.

Mostly they are waiting for Craig Finn, the singer. It might make more sense to call him a storyteller: All of his songs are stories and he doesn't really sing them, he shouts them. Whatever he is, he's missing.

"Where's Craig?" asks the bass player, the long-haired and exceedingly friendly Galen Polivka, a Brooklyn bartender who lived in Minneapolis for a few years in the '90s. He's answered by an elevator connecting the dressing room to the stage entrance. The door rumbles open and Finn is standing limply, washed in elevator light. Finn used to work in finance, over at the Northstar building on Marquette Avenue, and he kind of looks the part. There's always been something very "casual Friday" about Finn, with his loosely tucked dress shirts and blue jeans cuffed over scuffed white Adidas.

Staciaann Photography

Details

In our expanded web section, you can hear the band, watch an audio slideshow, see photo galleries from their tours, and walk with us through Craig Finn's Twin Cities with an interactive map highlighting local lyrical references. Plus, a comprehensive collection of links and a timeline of the band's rise on our blog.

He steps off the elevator and there are high-fives—the ones that don't connect are caught on a second try.

Guitar player Tad Kubler, a gregarious, tattooed Wisconsin native and father of one who moved to Minneapolis in the early '90s, takes one step onto the stage, just out of sight of the crowd, to have a look at the audience. He's sipping whiskey and Coke from a red plastic cup. Theater security rushes him: "No drinks on the stage!" Kubler backs out and the security guy knocks his arm ever so slightly, but enough that the drink spills. Kubler mumbles an expletive into his cup and wipes the drink off his arm and onto his pant leg.

Keyboardist Franz Nicolai, the only member of the Hold Steady who has not lived in Minneapolis, chews a toothpick and guzzles from a bottle of wine he'll finish by the end of the show. He looks at the bottle and then at the stage, where a fifth of Jim Beam rests on an amp. Nobody has to say it: This is the Hold Steady, and there will be liquor on the stage.

A crew member, rail-thin and dressed in black, rushes over. He'd been positioning guitars and checking amps: "Okay, here's how it's going to happen," he says. "Lights go down, banner drops, intro music starts. You wait a little bit and then come out."

And it goes just like that. The lights go down and the crowd screams.

Bobby Drake, the drummer, is leaning against a wall in the hallway. He answers the screams with an imitation crowd roar, his hands cupped around his mouth.

From 60 feet up, a black banner depicting what appears to be an angry cardinal drops to the stage floor. The intro starts—cowboy music with whistles—and Drake fires off a few fingertip rounds from his hip. After a signal from the crew member, the band marches light-footed onto the stage. Hands wave all the way back to the lit EXIT signs on the gilded balcony.

On an 80-foot stage wide enough for a half-dozen bar bands, there is just one. Finn's slumped body bends over a microphone. His guitar hangs low like his blue jeans. "When we kicked this thing off in 2003," he shouts into the theater, "we weren't even sure if we wanted to play shows. Then we said, let's make a bar band. This summer we opened for the Stones in Dublin!"

The show is a homecoming of sorts for the Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis band, and in the front row are cousins, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers who fidget constantly with earplugs. Some of them are screaming with the packed house behind them. Some are just smiling.

"Yeah, but we're still a bar band at heart," Finn shouts.

MOST BANDS NEVER have a year like the Hold Steady are having. This summer Finn traded verses with Bruce Springsteen at Carnegie Hall—it turns out the Boss is a fan. The Hold Steady opened for the Stooges in Zagreb and the Stones in Dublin. The band played Letterman and the rest of the late-night TV circuit, as well as the big festivals in the U.S. and Europe. Then the ultimate hometown tribute: Between innings at more than a few Twins home games last season, baseball fans were treated to a commissioned Hold Steady recording of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

For that matter, most bands don't have a year like the Hold Steady had before this one. Or the one before that: In 2005, the band was the first to make the cover of New York City's Village Voice in a decade, and Finn was profiled in The New Yorker.

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