Home for the Holidays with the Hold Steady
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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).
He's a smiling fit of energy. He skitters from one end of the stage to the other, stopping at random intervals to hold his arms out to the crowd he suddenly owns.
When he's singing, he bobs a finger up and down like a ball bouncing on words at the bottom of a television screen. He sweeps both hands in an arc above his head and then behind his back, like he's pushing each sentence of frenetic narrative to the floor behind him to be trampled by his band and swept from the stage at the end of the night.
He goes hoarse shout-singing about the Mississippi River, but he pushes through it. For all anybody knows, he could be crying for this town.
But for every one of Finn's raw expressions of bliss, there are a dozen or more people in the audience aping him. That frantic clapping to no beat—it's happening all the way back in the balcony.
IT'S TEMPTING TO try to position the Hold Steady somewhere in the pantheon of influential Minneapolis punk and rock bands: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Soul Asylum and the rest, but the members of the Hold Steady left Minneapolis years ago.
Sure, the lyrics read like a not-for-tourists guide to the Twin Cities, and fans on both coasts wear Twins shirts and hats—sometimes even "full-on jerseys," according to Finn.
And yeah, Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner came to New York City last year to be on the band's third record (it's an odd match, but a notable tip of the pantheon-hat).
Still, the Hold Steady is not a Minneapolis band: They're a bunch of guys from Minneapolis, sure, but the Hold Steady is, and has always been, a Brooklyn band.
The band is back in Brooklyn now—the home they never write about. Kubler complains of a shaky re-entry. "I can't sleep now because I'm not moving. We got a glimpse of how the other side lives on this tour. It was a month of playing to hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, everybody yelling the words to each song at you. Every night there is this surge, and now we have to put the brakes on and be normal. It's hard."
Immediately after braking in Brooklyn, there was a birthday party for his daughter. "It was all regular people with regular jobs," he says. "I felt like Bruce Dern in Coming Home when he's back from the war and can only relate to his army buddies."
So some of the band members gather at the cramped and narrow apartment of a friend—another Minneapolis rock-scene expat—and they watch the Vikings. Or they meet up at the Hi-Fi, a bar on Manhattan's Avenue A, where Polivka, when he's not on tour, makes drinks and keeps the snack bowls full.
Next week the band goes into the studio to start recording their fourth record in as many years. When the album is done, there will be more touring, and Kubler is looking forward to it with the mind of a manager. "Every time out, you want to project growth," he says. "You don't want to sell out the same place, you want to sell out a bigger place."
Finn has more modest ambitions: "If we stay on the road, we can pay our bills."
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