Gotta Stay Positive
Beer and spirituality with the Hold Steady
by William Kennedy
The Fiji Mermaid was a popular attraction of 19th century circus great P.T. Barnum. It was believed by many to be the skeletal remains of a mermaid. In truth, it was the head and torso of a baby monkey attached to the back half of a fish and covered in paper-mache.
The Hold Steady also links things that don’t belong together in order to produce a legendary third thing. And that third thing is one of America’s most critically acclaimed bands whose live shows have reached mythic proportions.
If you haven’t heard of the Hold Steady, you probably haven’t read a music magazine or seen a music website for about five years. After simmering in the underground for some time, they became indie darlings with their 2006 release, Boys and Girls in America.
This success is in no small part due to combining things in their sound that might be thought of as mutually exclusive: macho classic rock riffs set next to minimal punk aggression, or blue-collar tales of booze and debauchery with brainy references to Tennyson.
By doing so The Hold Steady managed to get indie kids punching the sky for epic guitar solos again. This is the band that is at least partially responsible for that guy you saw at the bar last night with a handlebar mustache and a can of Pabst in his hands. But Hold Steady vocalist Craig Finn puts it more plainly: “We’re just a rock and roll band. Indie means something we’re not. We’re inclusive.”
Finn grew up in Minneapolis, and despite now being based out of Brooklyn, his hometown features heavily in his dense, cinematic lyrics along with a recurring cast of small town waitresses, musicians, drifters, students and druggies in an endless succession of late nights at bars, rock shows and keggers. If the Richard Linklater film Dazed and Confused was a band, it’d sound like the Hold Steady.
“The characters are parts of people I know,” Finn says, “but it would be less exciting if it was based on my life. The characters I write about are careening between big highs and lows, push and pull.” Finn adds that his writing is “definitely part of a narrative arc” that continues from song to song and album to album.
In 2010 the Hold Steady released their fifth studio album, Heaven Is Whenever. The first single, “Hurricane J,” tells the story of a small town girl drifting through her 22nd year “bangin’ around in restaurants” and with boys down at the harbor.
The song asks, “If heaven’s hypothetical, and all the cigs keep you warm, then how’s she supposed to think about how it’s gonna move in the morning?” Like the characters of beat author Jack Kerouac, many of Finn’s anti-heroes are living life on the edge while searching for deeper spiritual meaning. “Kerouac is an influence,” Finn says. “It’s the wild open road thing, but it’s also that he’s traditional, Catholic and American. He played football.”
And many of Finn’s characters find their meaning at rock shows and the associated scenes that spring up around them, especially the bands and scenes of Finn’s youth. But Finn clarifies that while the internet has taken some of the romance away, he feels music has as much integrity now as it ever has. “Getting your license and going to a concert is a beautiful thing. Fathers and sons come to our shows. It’s exciting.”
The Hold Steady, Jaill. 8 pm Saturday, Aug. 21. WOW Hall • $16 adv., $18 door.