If The Hold Steady are not America's greatest rock band---and there's a case to be made for it---they're certainly its most deceptively great one.
A casual listener may wonder why their five albums of seemingly familiar power chords and piano histrionics have earned such cultish devotion. Sure, the band's ability to suture the punk/classic rock divide into a cohesive sound is impressive, and there's much to respect about a 21st-century band that is unashamedly "Rock" with a capital R. But does that really explain why Hold Steady fans love The Hold Steady so much?
No, it's only when you really spend time with a great song like "Stuck Between Stations" or "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" and discover Craig Finn's lyrical wit---perfectly matched to guitarist Tad Kubler's razorblade riffs---that the appeal starts to make sense.
With understated tension, Finn writes of boys and girls crashing through adolescence to adulthood, capturing all the cigarette burns and alcohol-fuelled regrets in between. Though he doesn't refer to them by name as often these days, his recurring characters and settings give you just enough plot to lose yourself in, allowing your own past indiscretions to echo as you belt along at the top of your lungs.
"So much songwriting is considered to be confessional: 'These are my problems, this is what happened to me, my heartbreak,'" says Finn, over the phone earlier this week. "I think that by using characters you can kind of do something that's a little more cinematic, create something that's broader in scope. If I wrote about my own problems, our records would be a lot more boring."
He's probably right. Though The Hold Steady remains one of the hardest working bands in the business, the accolades and fandom they've earned after the breakthrough success of the 2005/06 double-punch of Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America means that they're practically music careerists at this point. Rather than living the life of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll he writes about, these days Finn is mostly concerned with staying healthy on the road.
"I think when we started there was some idea that we weren't going to be able to do this for long, so we tried to go out every night and went crazy, and you just end up sick and exhausted. Now, I fully expect to be touring all through next year, so it's not like it's 'tonight or never.' It's like, 'Let's play the show and get some rest, because we're going to play tomorrow night and try to play as well as we can again.'"
If that sounds like the makings of a boring concert experience, think again. I first saw The Hold Steady live two years ago at Coachella, playing a set far earlier in the day than a band of its quality deserved. No matter: they performed like headliners, as generous with rock theatrics as they were with the ear-crushing volume. Finn's enthusiasm, in particular, was infectious: He'd just stop playing his guitar if he felt that pointing out into the crowd or dancing his heart out was more important at that moment.
It's that commitment to passionate, participatory rock 'n' roll that explains Finn's personal goal for the band to eventually play all 50 US states (they're at 48 right now, having just knocked Delaware off the list). And it's what brings them off their usual touring paths to play both Halifax and Fredericton this week.
"That's kind of an exciting thing for us, to be somewhere on the map we haven't been and heading there to play a show," he says. "When we set off and started this band, it was part of our plan to release a lot of records and play a lot of shows. One of the things I'm very interested in is inclusivity, meaning to have all different types of people included. So that means not just going to big cities, but going to these different places and bring what we do to them...There's a lot of people interested in music that don't live in New York or wherever."
They're bringing a slightly different lineup to town than the one I saw two years ago: mustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band prior to the recording of this year's Heaven is Whenever. The departure presented an opportunity to rethink the band's sound and broaden its palette, the results of which you can hear on ambitious tracks like album-closer "A Slight Discomfort."
"Franz is an incredible musician," says Finn. "He played all these different instruments and sometimes because of that we had a hard time resisting filling up every available space with music. So I think when we wrote these songs, we thought a lot more about letting things breathe and having more space in there."
The album's title comes from "We Can Get Together," a song about discovering salvation while listening to records. In a lesser lyricist's hands, it could reek of cliche but Finn makes it honest and believable---probably because he lives the sentiment.
"I know that if I wasn't in a rock band, I would probably still be spending four nights a week going to see bands, because that's how it was when I wasn't in a band. When The Hold Steady started, there was never this magic moment where we all got to quit our jobs or whatever. We just started playing so much that we became unemployable. It's almost like this addiction or a passion: you just end up wanting to be around it so much that it ends up becoming your life."