It’s when I’m watching Craig Finn, singer of the Hold Steady, stab his index finger at the audience as he dances across the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg that I consider whether all rock bands wind up as performance art. Three hours ago, he was sitting backstage on a couch telling me about slowly realizing he couldn’t hit the bottle as hard as he used to. “I found out the hard way that I’m not him,” he says when I bring up drinking legend Robert Pollard. But here he is, alit with the glow of a thousand beers and conjuring the Craig Finn every Hold Steady fan knows and loves, the scene poet proselytizing about the youth of today even as he struggles to speak into the mic in between songs. He begins to speak several times, only to cut himself off. “Fuck it,” he says at one point. “You don’t want to hear this.”
The joke, of course, is that hearing what Finn had to say was always the point. Between 2004 and 2006, the Hold Steady released three albums—Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday, and Boys and Girls in America—that set a different standard for what indie rock could sound like. When their Brooklyn peers were mining postpunk and dance music, the Hold Steady channeled Springsteen, Thin Lizzy and ‘70s hard rock radio to back Finn’s bleeding heart missives about bad girlfriends and boring boyfriends, summer beers with your best friends, lovers who were bad news, kids getting high by the river and waking up in different cities. There was nothing like his voice, either; he sounded like someone nursing the world’s worst head cold while trying to talk through a mouthful of margarita mix. On top of braggadocio kick-ass guitar riffs, he invented an entire universe in a ubiquitous speak-sing cadence with the persistence of a drunk stranger yelling a story at you. He was the angel on every shoulder of the kid listening to it, an avuncular figure who said I’ve been there and done that and you’re there right now and it’s going to hurt but it will be beautiful.
Granted I was an uber-fan who once took a two-hour bus ride in a different country to see them play for the fourth or fifth time, but it will never get more simple than saying it was really fun to drink a bucket of beers with your friends while Separation Sunday played in the background, quoting lyrics back and forth like goofballs. Drinking was an integral part of their process, and the Hold Steady loved to quip about being the world’s best bar band. When they sung about alcohol, they made it sound like the refuge of romantics, not cowards, believing that life was easier to face with a boozy, broken-toothed smile than on its own. But they were more than just a great drinking band. People who loved rock’s long tradition loved them because they deconstructed every rock myth without ever seeming less than reverent. They were too self-conscious to swagger toward the opposite sex like Led Zeppelin—not without downing a few beers beforehand—but guitarist Tad Kubler wasn’t afraid to kick through the door with a Page-derived riff.
The Hold Steady knew about how rock n’ roll was a narcissistic hero fantasy and didn’t care. They absorbed rock music’s power as edifying consensus—their psalms were singalong songs, after all—but spat it back out with a wink so that fans could decide on their own what made sense and what didn’t. “I’m not saying we could save you, but we could put you in a place where we could save yourself,” they sang. “If you don’t get born again, at least you’ll get high as hell.”
To so publicly aspire to provide salvation was a bold move. If rock bands are cooler the more mysterious they come off, the Hold Steady were defiantly dorky in their earnestness—a decision made after Finn’s experience in hardcore bands and the modest success of his and Kubler’s earlier band, Lifter Puller.
“Lifter Puller was very much an indie band. I was turning about 30, and I said This is bullshit. Obscure 7 inches, secret basement shows? It’s more about pushing people out, you know? Not being cooler than other people,” he says backstage. “At a certain age you get above 27 and if you’re still into that there’s something kind of wrong. I just wanted to do something that people who buy records at Target in the middle of Kansas who’ve never heard of Pavement or another indie band would be able to relate to.”
After Lifter Puller ended in 2000, Finn and Kubler each moved to New York City within the same year and were eventually asked to play as the backing band for an Upright Citizens Brigade-affiliated comedy show at Arlene's Grocery. “They wanted it to be hard rock so it was like KISS songs and AC/DC and Cheap Trick and stuff like that, which is right in my wheelhouse,” Kubler says. “That’s what I grew up with—it’s kind of how I learned to play guitar, playing along with those records.” From there, they started writing new songs together, Finn pacing the floor of his kitchen as Kubler played along on his electric guitar. The early Hold Steady records sound like a call-and-response between cultured singer and savant guitarist, their styles bouncing off each other without fully congealing.
Craig was thoughtful; Tad was hard. The band itself came off as nice. I never saw a Hold Steady show where Finn didn’t spend the majority of the set with a delirious smile on his face, hopping up and down like he was performing karaoke to his own songs. At the conclusion of each show, he’d give a speech about how wonderful it was to play for everyone in the crowd—and I believed him each time, no matter how many times I’d heard it. That outwardness was partially informed by his experience with Lifter Puller. “We set out with real low aspirations when we started this band but we had such a fun time doing it I think people wanted to come aboard,” he says. “Lifter Puller were a lot smaller so it somehow felt more exhausting because we all had jobs; we toured in a van and slept on floors, you know. I think that experience was really nice. And when the Hold Steady happened it was nice to be able to have a lot of gratitude about the good things that have happened to us.”
After that virtuosic run of albums, the Hold Steady released the very good Stay Positive in 2008, capitalizing on their newfound status as the most righteous band in indie rock. (I mean, look at that title.) What happened next was, by the band’s account, a little trying. A European tour was canceled on the eve of setting out because of Kubler’s bout with pancreatitis. After putting out four albums in five years, the band found themselves pushing harder to complete out the next. “It was rushed,” Kubler says of the 2010 release, Heaven is Whenever. “Not everybody was on the same page, and I don’t think there was a lot of communication.” (It should be noted that my interviews with Finn and Kubler are conducted separately.) Longtime keyboardist Franz Nicolay, whose contributions were crucial to the sweeping melodrama of Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America, left during the making of Heaven is Whenever, and had some unkind things to say to say about their direction. He will not make a sentimental reappearance during the show, sadly, and Kubler doesn't refer to him by name when his contributions come up.
Finn is diplomatic when discussing what went wrong. “We really needed a break. I wish we would’ve taken a break before making that record,” he says. “But you know, at the same time when you have—we’re about to release our sixth record, you know—one of them’s going to be the one you like the least or whatever.” That any band would struggle to achieve the same highs as their earlier work is understandable, but the Hold Steady seemed to struggle with the expectation of writing Hold Steady songs: a punchy guitar riff, a sad protagonist, a lot of “he said, she said” narration. “I’ve heard a million Hold Steady impersonations,” he says. “You don’t want to write that. My best friend always says”—Finn adopts a voice octaves lower than his normal singing register—”She cut herself down by the Mississippi River. That’s his Hold Steady impersonation. So any time it gets too close to that I’m like, I gotta back off.” After creating such a vivid world, the band was having a hard time escaping it. Despite being their highest-charting album
being their best-selling album, Heaven is Whenever received the worst reviews of their exceptionally lauded career.
Four years have passed between that record and their newest, Teeth Dreams—longer than it took for the first three albums to come out. In between, Finn recorded a solo album and the band added a new guitarist, Steve Selvidge, which allowed Finn to drop the pretense of being a guitar player. (During the show, he will play without one—usually, one would just dangle untouched around his neck like a dead limb.) Selvidge joined during the Heaven is Whenever tour, and helped write the music for Teeth Dreams. You can hear his influence in the guitar interplay, which is the most nuanced of the band’s career. “I struggle a little bit with having a 10th anniversary show because I think we’re about to put out what I think is certainly our best record,” Kubler says. “We’re not a heritage act or anything.”
He’s not incorrect, even if to many it might be mildly heretical to suggest Teeth Dreams is better than those early albums. Teeth Dreams is heartfelt, a grower that better contextualizes the Heaven is Whenever transition to a post-Hold Steady Hold Steady. Still, the bathroom line at the show goes from zero to dozens deep when the first new song gets trotted out. Sure, the album isn’t out yet, and it’s hard to bet a full bladder on giving a fresh song a shot and potentially missing, like, “Stuck Between Stations”. But if Kubler is insistent that the band isn’t yet a nostalgia act, that only seems about half true. When I ask both of them what they hope for the band’s next ten years, neither says “Make the best record of our career!” Finn is aware that bands who stay together for longer are usually making a good amount of money, while Kubler hypothesizes about doing a 20 year anniversary show at Madison Square Garden.
If the vibe I get from the both of them isn’t “best friends for life,” they do seem like adults who’ve learned to work through the rough patches of a long friendship for the sake of a healthy career they still enjoy. It would be impossible to watch them play and not think they’re having fun. (Instructive lyric: “Some nights it’s just entertainment / And some other nights it’s real”) The fans, too, are having a blast when they’re not waiting in the bathroom line; by night’s end I’m covered in sweat and just a little confetti. (Relevant note from halfway through: “BRO HUG WITH ALL MY BROS”) “People are still having a good time,” Finn says. “As long as there’s that kind of discussion with the fans and the community, we’ll keep doing it. “
This doesn't really feel like an “anniversary” show, even if they’re playing at the site of their very first show (back when MHOW was still Northsix). It’s not even the 10th anniversary, technically, because the band formed in 2003. Kubler’s reasoning is a little hedged. “If we call it a 10th anniversary show it’ll give us a good reason to through the catalogue and play songs we don’t play as much anymore, and maybe we can play longer, and we have the new record,” he says. Then, he catches himself. “Not that you ever need a good reason to have a rock show, but it seemed like something that would be good for us to do.” Having said that, the set list doesn’t really contain any big surprises. They do the obvious songs, like “Stuck Between Stations” and “The Swish”, and less obvious cuts like “Stevie Nix” and “Certain Songs”. They play two encores, each set ending with the closer from one of their albums: “Slapped Actress” followed by “How A Resurrection Really Feels” and finishing with “Killer Parties”, one of a million great songs they wrote about reminiscing for the good old drunk days. Even the new songs sounded powerful, demanding another listen with fresh ears.
They sounded as good as they had when they were my favorite band, before my life had progressed to the point in between hoping what would be and remembering what had been. Even if Kubler didn’t see them as a heritage act, the passage of time meant I couldn’t help but reminisce about when those songs meant everything—a time when I wanted songs like that to mean everything. I imagine the roomful of people harmonizing and screaming along with each other feels similarly; at one point, my friend starts kissing random people on the forehead. (He also takes his shirt off, only to sheepishly put it back on when the song that followed was the decidedly turned-down “Citrus”.) If this soaked, sentimental mood is one you’d ascribe to a Hold Steady diehard, the band’s legacy was creating a space where that was alright. I don’t know how they’ll be canonized going down the road, but in this moment they reminded they were still a great rock band. What they do in the next 11 years is entirely up to them.
Jeremy Gordon could go on. He's on Twitter - @jeremypgordon