Amidst a sea of big heads and soft bodies, five men casually stroll out to the strains of a triumphant Ennio Morricone score. In this Milwaukee crowd, an eclectic group of teenagers, college students, 30-something paper pushers and baby boomers nostalgic for the glory days of rock ‘n roll, pepper the audience. It’s a strange sight to see, but they all have one thing in common: they are unified under the same feeling of absolute joy this band brings the minute it appears on stage.
The first four band members, all of whom lived in Minneapolis, aren’t all that disparate. The singer, had he not been wearing a Carling soccer jersey and a pair of jeans, would fit in perfectly as a CPA at a major corporation. His squarish, thick-rimmed glasses are the giveaway. The guitar player is a doppelganger for the Chicago Cubs’ Mike Fontenot, only Fontenot 10 years from now. The bassist, a Thomas Haden Church-looking dude, wears a silly smile and seems genuinely touched by the enthusiasm the crowd shows him. The drummer looks like Sting, if he was a mechanic from St. Paul. He’s poker-faced, the only band member that would really qualify as brooding and mysterious.
But the fifth guy, the New Hampshirian – the one who plays keyboards? Well, he stands out like a sore thumb. Then again, so would you if you wore a crisp black suit, black dress shirt, matching fedora and a red rose tucked into your front jacket pocket. The Dali-esque mustache doesn’t hurt either.
This is The Hold Steady, a rock band based out of Brooklyn with its heart planted firmly in the Twin Cities.
The members â€“ singer Craig Finn, 36, guitarist Tad Kubler, 34, bassist Galen Polivka, 39, drummer Bobby Drake, 32 and keyboardist Franz Nicolay, 30, have spent a better portion of the past four years barnstorming the world in support of their three albums, released in consecutive years from 2004-2006 with a fourth due this summer. Their classic bar-band sound – think of the E-Street Band covering Thin Lizzy songs, paired with singer/lyricist Craig Finn’s sing-along stories about drinking, drug addicts, religion and the Mississippi River, have made them a favorite with fans and critics alike.
“Most indie rock bands are shitty to see live,” says Nicolay. “It’s not as big of a problem now as it was 10 years ago. There was an anti-performance ethos that I found really irritating and a little contemptuous of the audience.”
The Hold Steady set out to turn that trend on its head. In a February 2004 interview with Aversion.com, Finn explained that The Hold Steady was formed “as a reaction to dance punk and what’s popular, which is pretty contrived in my mind, it’s also a reaction against that dress-up garage rock kind of thing. The rock ‘n roll that has gotten big has been very postured and costumed.”
Anders Lindall, a freelancer and music writer for the Chicago Sun-Times who has followed The Hold Steady, echoes Finn’s statement.
“They are incredibly passionate about what they do,” he says. “Craig is so demonstrative and engaging. You [know] that you’re seeing something special.”
Lindall is right about Finn being demonstrative. In almost every song, he passionately acts out his lyrics.
Onstage, Finn wears a guitar, however he hardly seems to use it. Instead, he’s a flurry of wild arm gestures, excitedly hopping up and down in place, and strolling to opposite ends of the stage repeating lyrics out at the audience that he just shouted into the microphone. He’s obviously wired in to his performance. The instrumentalists are a ferociously tight quintet as they hammer through the band’s catalog of mammoth classic rock riffs and jubilant choruses with surgical like precision.
His voice, a throaty speak-sing, has been the target of many of the band’s detractors .To the uninitiated, it sounds like he’s shouting over the band’s music. To the band’s fans, he seems just like one of them a guy who’s realized his rock star dream. Finn’s animated stage presence coupled with his guy-next-door look has even led one rock writer to describe him as a “fanboy gone wild.”
The band’s lyrics are wildly literate – they’re more like epic stories than simple pop songs. Finn spent the first two records exploring the story of three characters he created – two drugged out guys and a girl that live in the Twin Cities. On the band’s third album, 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, he moved to more universal themes of loss, hope and redemption. His eye for detail is evident on the song “Chillout Tent”, with the lyrics “She looked just like a baby bird all new and wet trying to light a parliament/ He quoted her some poetry/¨He’s Tennyson in denim and sheepskin/ He looked a lot like Izzy Stradlin.”
The Hold Steady are renowned to its fan base for its closeness. Post-show, it’s not unlikely to catch the band members hanging out with fans, knocking back a few drinks and telling stories. This “everyman” approach is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, a musician to whom the band is often compared.
Two of the band members in particular, Nicolay and Kubler, are specifically known for going out of the way for their fans.
“I want to meet the people that care about the same thing I care about – the music,” Nicolay says. “I want to reach out to them, [find out] why they care, what else we may have in common.”
The fans have responded in spades. A group formed on the band’s message board calls themselves the “Unified Scene.” Unified Scene members, named after a reference in one of the band’s songs, are known to travel from all over the country to see the band, sort of like Deadheads minus the chemicals. The Unified Scene wears matching navy blue T-shirts, each with a different number. It’s an all-inclusive group; even Hold Steady members have numbers.
For a band that has played on the Late Show with David Letterman and has been referenced on ESPN’s Sportscenter, I wanted to test the statements I had heard about it being “that easy” to get in touch with the band.
That’s when I sent Nicolay the e-mail. I was shocked (and somewhat thrilled) to have my interview request granted by a simple message to his personal address.
That’s all it took.
“They are totally down-to-Earth, regular guys,” Lindall says.
Nicolay provides a reason for the band’s responsibility to its audience.
“Each of us individually has spent so much time playing music that no one cared about and we appreciate that other people [now] do care about it,” he says.
Lindall provides an interesting perspective on the subject.
“[It’s an] extension of a longer tradition of American underground rock. It hasn’t been prominent in the past 15 years or more,” he says. “It hearkens back to a sense community of underground bands that really defined indie rock in the “80s bands and fans, college radio DJ’s, and zine writers were all part of one community who all saw each other as collaborators, not competitors.”
And there’s the live show.
“[The first I saw] was at Schuba’s here in Chicago … even then they had a small crowd in their hands,” Lindall says. “Every time they take the stage they throw themselves into these songs. [I’ve seen them] more recently in front of thousands at Lollapalooza, venues like that where the experience is not so intimate, [but] the immediacy of their songs still come across. The passion they put in their performance and the nature of this kind of music “classic rock n’ roll with a punk sense of energy that translates to a large venue or festival crowd really easy.”
With a highly anticipated album due in July, the band’s popularity is expected to rise. It remains to be seen if the intimacy at its shows can continue. Nicolay isn’t concerned.
“It feels to me that I give the same performance to 150 or 2,000 people,” he says. You’d like to think that the ideal is to keep that intimacy in terms of your connection with people. You try to make eye contact and be aware that 3,000 people are having this experience.”
Even at the band’s recent Milwaukee show, in a packed ballroom of more than 1,300 people, the intimacy is not lost on the fans.
During the midpoint of one of the band’s songs, Finn spots a college-aged girl with dirty blonde hair and blues eyes in the front row wearing a green, homemade T-shirt with the phrase “LFTR PLLR” in block letters. He points and smiles at the girl without missing a beat. She smiles back. The shirt is a nod to his and Kubler’s pre-Hold Steady group, Lifter Puller.
“[There’s] a real sense of connection that comes between the fans and the performance,” Lindall says.
After a post-show, late-night snack at a nearby diner, my friends and I made our way back to the car. In the distance, we noticed a small group coming our way. They’re hovering around a guy with glasses wearing a sport coat over a familiar soccer jersey. As our entourages neared each other, we let out a friendly “Heyyyy!” as he passed.
Craig Finn smiled and said, “Thanks for being a part of it tonight!” and continued walking into the brisk Milwaukee night.