Home for the Holidays with the Hold Steady

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

Drake is playing free gear, too: a sparkling green kit (he's got one on tour with him and one back home in Brooklyn). "I don't pay for anything anymore," he says with a shrug.

AFTER FINN'S LAST band, Lifter Puller, dissolved in 2000, he left the Twin Cities for a job in New York City. He was thinking he might be done with music. "Lifter Puller was a hassle. I booked our tours from a payphone in the Northstar building. There was never any momentum. I left fried."

It was a couple of years before Finn started talking to friends about forming a band. When Kubler moved to New York City to work as a photographer's assistant, the talk intensified. Then, in 2002 an improv comedy troupe called Mr. Ass invited Finn to put together a band to play classic-rock covers between skits.

Staciaann Photography


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.

"We learned 'Back in Black' and 'The Boys Are Back in Town,'" Finn recalls. "We were doing this '70s rock thing and thinking, 'This sounds pretty cool!'"

Eventually, the band wrote an original song. "Knuckles" starts with the steady thump of a bass drum. Kubler fixes a low crunching rock riff to it. Finn shouts his way into a story that may or may not be about a meth dealer struggling with a crisis of respect ("I was just trying to say funny things," Finn says):

"I've been trying to get people to call me Freddy Knuckles/People keep calling me Right Said Fred/It's hard to hold steady when half your friends are dead already/There's a war going down in the Middle Western states/The Kevlar vests against the crystal flakes."

The first song on The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, the band's debut, reads like the notebook scribbles from a bored kid auditing a survey course in American history:

We got shiftless in the '50s/Holding hands and going steady...twisting into dark parts of big Midwestern cities/Tripped right through the '60s with some blissful little hippie/The '70s got heavy we woke up on bloody carpets/Got tangled up in gas lines—I guess that's where it started/The '80s almost killed me let's not recall them quite so fondly/In the '90s we were wired and well connected—put it all down on technology and lost everything we invested.

Then, Finn introduces himself and his band to his fans and his characters in a single, emphatically delivered verse:

All the sniffling indie kids: hold steady/All the clustered-up clubber kids: hold steady/I got bored when I didn't have a band, so I started a band/We're gonna start it with a positive jam/Hold steady!

Finn's stories are eyeball-deep in local references, most of them obscure. It is a prank of rock lyricism that crowds from Seattle to Zagreb sing along with songs that name-check the Crystal Court, the Thunderbird, the Grain Belt Bridge, and Osseo.

In "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," Finn is singing about City Center, an otherwise unremarkable shopping plaza in the heart of downtown Minneapolis—surely a first in American popular music:

She said, "City Center used to be the center of the scene—now City Center's over/No one really goes there/Then we used to drink beneath this railroad bridge/Some nights the bus wouldn't even stop, there were just way too many kids."

It's a testament to Finn's skills as a writer that Hold Steady fans seem to get this stuff in, say, Stockholm: He's disguised universal themes in hyper-local scenes. And the endless drug and drink references probably don't hurt.

"My songs are really just about highs and lows," Finn says. "Drugs and alcohol play a part—our society uses them all the time to maintain highs and lows."

Hold Steady songs are fixed in a distinguished tradition: Finn's characters could just as easily have been cast in a Born to Run-era Springsteen song (and Finn singing "Rosalita Come Out Tonight" with Springsteen at Carnegie Hall is the proof: "Little Gun's downtown in front of Woolworth's tryin' out his attitude on all the cats/Papa's on the corner waitin' for the bus").

Finn's songs are never confessional. He might embody a character, but he rarely cameos: It's cinematic songwriting and Hold Steady songs are thick with it:

Her parents named her Halleluiah, the kids all called her Holly/If she scared you then she's sorry/She's been stranded at these parties/She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass/She was limping left on broken heels when she said, "Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?"

I ask Finn if he ever meets kids who seem like they've stepped out of one of his songs. "Not really," he says, "But I meet a lot of kids who are fascinated and want to get into one."

The way to get inside a Hold Steady song is to experience it live. Somewhere inside Finn there is a switch that he flips between the stage door and the microphone. Off stage he can seem apprehensive. But when the band lurches into its opening song at the State Theater, his feet stomp and his hands clap frantically to no beat (this is something of a trademark).

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