Home for the Holidays with the Hold Steady

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

There is a trophy for bands that have years like this: a tour bus. Younger bands playing smaller venues limp into town in dirty vans with suspect engines. Bands like the Hold Steady are delivered asleep in stacked bunks.

That's how the Hold Steady arrived at the State Theater. The afternoon of the show, Drake, veteran of many dirty vans, stands by the door smoking. Before the Hold Steady asked him to New York to join the band in 2005—"We can't guarantee rent but if you can get here you've got a drum gig," Finn told him—Drake was working as an auto mechanic at Brookside Amoco in St. Louis Park and had been playing drums in a string of Minneapolis bands since his teens.

He's wearing a biker jacket and a scarf tied tight around his neck. He's thinner than he was before he moved to New York—and maybe a little more handsome. "The kid who sells shirts for us keeps calling me Sting," Drake says. "It's pissing me off."

Staciaann Photography

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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.

The bus is remarkably not rock 'n' roll inside. It's quiet and clean. Finn is hunched over a laptop (the bus has wi-fi, naturally). Franz Nicolai and his handlebar mustache are on a cell phone. The band's understated U.K. publicist is hurrying cautiously down a narrow center aisle past a table and a television and out the hydraulic code-locked door to meet a dapper and soft-spoken British rock journalist and his shaggy photographer, who are doing an article on the band.

Drake grabs some beers from a fridge and walks to a plush lounge at the back of the bus. His girlfriend, Lizzie McVay, a dancer and choreographer in New York City, is there; she rode with the band from Chicago and did not find the rolling hotel restful.

Not so for the band, who—no doubt aided by the rest-inducing powers of whiskey—slept through the drive to Minneapolis, the arrival at the theater, and the unloading of their gear.

Polivka is, at 39, the oldest member of an already older-than-average indie-rock band, which means he's been loading his gear into lesser venues, on tour with lesser bands, for more years than the others have. When he learned he had slept through load-in, he found a crew member and apologized. "Man, I'm so sorry I wasn't around to help."

From the roadie, a gentle reminder of his band's upgrade: "It's all right, man, you're paying us."

The bus driver waits in a hotel room nearby. He'll come back to drive the band out of town in the early hours. Drake grins when he tells me their driver has worked for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Band—"Yeah, but not back in the day," Finn says. "More like when they were playing Valley Fair."

At one point Drake leaves and comes back with a mauve gift bag overfilled with yellow tissue paper. It's a present to the band from his parents. There is Tupperware with homemade cookies and five framed portraits, one of each band member. Drake's father, an actor at the Children's Theater for more than three decades, drew them. "You know how long this took me, Bobby?" he said. "Two months!"

INSIDE THE THEATER an afternoon of sound checks has ended and ushers are in their positions. This is the band's first show with assigned seats. All three bands on the bill this night have their gear set up on the stage, one band in front of the other.

First up is Federale, a band Kubler and Polivka discovered in a Brooklyn practice space down the hall from theirs. Kubler remembers thinking, "What the fuck is this?" and knocking on their door. The band of swamp-rock loyalists hadn't done any serious touring before the Hold Steady took them out.

Next comes the more eccentric, more British, and more, well, arty Art Brut—it was a match made by managers. Art Brut had never met the Hold Steady before the tour.

As the night wears on, layers of Federale and Art Brut gear will be peeled off until only the Hold Steady's equipment remains.

The balance of that gear belongs to Kubler, who, more than any other guy in the band, has taken to his new station without hesitation. As the band started exploding, he was quick to fall in line with decades of guitar heroes before him, from Slash to Jack White: He started wearing a fancy hat onstage and in photos.

Kubler is a rock 'n' roll guy to his marrow—and a rock 'n' roll guy loves his gear. He's got a sponsorship from the guitar-maker Gibson and a rack of guitars (with more at home) to show for it. More than a half-dozen of them are onstage at the State—including one guitar that is actually two. At his feet: a gear head's collection of effect pedals. When an old friend shows up—the guy who produced the band's second record—Kubler runs through his new gear with a lilt in his voice and a collector's enthusiasm.

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