Left of the Dial: The Hold Steady

Welcome to Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t. A few months ago I was leafing through the latest issue of The Scene, a Cleveland based alternative newspaper, when I saw an article on the top 25 best Cleveland concerts in the past 30 years. One of the shows listed was a 2006 gig at a club called the Grog Shop (where 90% of the concerts I’ve been to took place) with a band called The Hold Steady. The name alone piqued my interest so I decided to check out some of their songs. From the first song, I was hooked. A few months later I got to see them live and experience first hand what they were all about. And now I would like to share my love for this band with you.

Anybody reading this who visits Pitchfork or other music journalism sites is probably quite familiar with this band. They’ve been adored by critics since day one and have toured with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews Band and Kings of Leon. Hell, Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, says this is his favorite band. But if you approached someone and randomly asked if they’ve ever heard of The Hold Steady, chances are they’ll just look at you funny and walk away. (Especially when you work for a site that specializes in reviewing comic books, horror movies, and the Star Wars expanded universe.) Well it’s situations like that that inspired me to write these articles in the first place.

Singer, guitarist and lyricist Craig Finn moved to Brooklyn, New York in 2000 from his native Minneapolis after the demise of his old band, Lifter Puller. With the inclusion of lead guitarist Tad Kulber (also formerly of Lifter Puller), bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Judd Counsell, The Hold Steady was born. Being  from Minnesota, Craig Finn was inspired by other local bands like The Replacements and Husker Du. While that is certainly prominent in their sound, the sharp lyricism actually reminds one of the great American songwriters of the late 70s like Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Tom Petty and Warren Zevon just to name a few. The backbone of their music lies in Craig Finn’s masterful lyrics and distinct sing-talk style driven by a voice that would make you think he lives on a straight diet of sand and cigarettes.

The first album of theirs, “Almost Killed Me” was released on Frenchkiss Records in 2004. It is a rock and roll confessional where Finn admits “The 80s almost killed me” on the first track, “Positive Jam”, and chronicles a lifestyle where he reveals going through a skater phase (“Knuckles”), raver phase (“Most People are DJs) and razorblade phase (“Sweet Payne”). The Springsteen influence is eminent, but so is the sincerity of late era Husker Du. It cements their core sound and gives listeners a taste of what’s to come.

Their second album, “Separation Sunday”, signified two major landmarks in the band’s history. The first is the inclusion of two new members: drummer Bobby Drake (whom replaced Judd Counsell), and keyboardist/mustache enthusiast Franz Nicolay. With keyboards now on the roster, it gave their sound a bit more diversity. The second was the introduction to the overlying mythology present in Finn’s songs. Separation Sunday is a concept album where Finn plays himself as a bar stool poet telling the exploits and antics of three characters: Holly (short for Hallelujah); a born again Catholic with a history of hard partying, Charlemagne; a pimp, and Gideon; a skinhead, as they travel from city to city and from party to party. It really shows off Finn’s literary style of writing and capability of spinning together elaborate mythologies, and in song no less. Like Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday weaves a tale of redemption and decadence, but where the former was completely guitar driven, the latter had a better balanced tone. Songs like “Hornets! Hornets!” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” make for great barroom brawls, but songs like “Don’t Let Me Explode” and “Crucifixion Cruise” which are lead by organs, seem meditative, further adding to the underlying Catholic themes of the story. And it’s all wrapped up by what I consider one of the band’s crowing achievements, “How a Resurrection Really Feels”. Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon would go on to be referenced in future songs, and while most of their later songs would be about other characters, it’s pretty safe to guess that they all live in the same universe.

My introduction to the band was through their signature tune “Stuck Between Stations”, and, sub-sequentially, the album it came off of, “Boys and Girls inAmerica”. It was here that the band really started to come into their own artistically. The aforementioned song is another exquisite example of Finn’s literary songwriting style, referencing both Jack Kerouac and John Berryman, and all the instruments get their turn to show off. This is my second favorite Hold Steady song behind Resurrection, and it’s off my favorite album of theirs. While it isn’t necessarily “Separation Sunday Part 2”, each song tells its own individual tale about pill popping gamblers (“Chips Ahoy”), awkward run-ins with old friends (“Party Pit”), sage advice for frustrated girls (“You Can Make Him Like You”), and we even get a little epilogue for Separation Sunday in “Massive Nights”. It’s an honest to God, straight up, in your face rock and roll record. Something that Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty would probably kick themselves for not writing first. It’s much more polished and cleaner than the previous records, but still retains their grit and style with a small focus but a large reach, and is the first of their albums that I would recommend checking out.

If The Hold Steady decided to call it quits after this, no one would’ve blamed them. Yet they kept on trucking and released “Stay Positive” in 2008. The reception was a mixed bag. A lot of long time fans complain about the over-polished sound and the excessive production, but others claimed this was what the band needed to smooth its rough edges. Positivity became the band’s theme from then on, and this was cemented in songs like the album titled track, “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis”. From that point forward, critical reception only seemed to pile up. They’ve been praised by every critic and their grandmother as the best live act of the 21st century, and the live DVD, “A Positive Rage”, did nothing but back up these claims.

Although it looked like nothing but smooth sailing, they did come across a big bump in the road. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band in 2010 to pursue other interests and because he felt that he had fulfilled his service to the band. While he wasn’t an original member, he gave The Hold Steady a flavor that they had previously lacked. It seemed inevitable that they would revert back to their old sound after this departure, but that wasn’t the case. In “Heaven is Whenever”, the pianos were missed, but not missing. There was less of a pitcher beer fueled bar band feel, but it reminded one more of a lonely road trip, seeming more like a road weary version of Stay Positive than what everyone expected. The lyrical themes of faith and a life lived hard remained in tact, most notably on “Hurricane J”, where Finn proclaims “She said if Heaven’s hypothetical, And if cigs keep you warm, Then how’s she supposed to think about, How it’s gonna move in the morning.” If rock and roll was football, watching this record come to be would be like watching Joe Theissman snap his leg back together and get back on the field to finish what he started.

The Hold Steady is a modern day band that your dad will like. While other 21st century bands like The White Stripes are rougher and more devoted to their roots, and other bands like Muse are more grandeur and epic, and bands like Nickelback just leave a bad taste in your mouth, these guys remain grounded and remind us all what rock and roll is really all about: passion, art, drugs, hardship, relief, perseverance, and booze. Lots and lots of booze. The Hold Steady is currently touring the US. For tour dates and other info, check out this website. http://theholdsteady.net/ This has been Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t.

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