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The Hold Steady drinking it all in

Photo courtesy of 230 Publicity
Ready, set, Hold Steady. Indie rock band Hold Steady has developed quite the reputation for being a party band. To see if it lives up to its status, head over to Plush on Sunday at 8:30 p.m.
By Michael Petitti
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 20, 2005
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The first thing you'll notice in a song by New York's The Hold Steady is Craig Finn's voice. It's slightly nasal and Finn doesn't use it to sing as much as to speak/bark his lyrics in a way that is aggressive, witty and world-weary. The first thing you'll notice about The Hold Steady's music is that it's familiar. Riffs are culled from classic '70s rock 'n' roll, without familiarity breeding contempt. More than a few critics have noted this and Finn completely embraces their views.

"I think the critics have done pretty well," Finn said. "Springsteen is someone we all like. Thin Lizzy, '70s rock 'n' roll and everything from Tom Petty to Bob Seger. Also, (we're) certainly influenced by punk and hardcore from the '80s, and certainly that kind of classic American indie rock, like The Replacements and Husker Du."

The first thing a reporter learns about a Hold Steady interview is that it's like a night at the bar: Wild, unpredictable and usually soaked in alcohol. Take an interview the band did with a writer from Stylus magazine online. The reporter lost large chunks of the tape recorded conversation, took whiskey shots with the band and nearly had his tape recorder broken (causing Finn to give the article its eventual title "The Hold Steady Broke My Tape Recorder"). Recently, Finn has been trying to slow down for the sake of lasting out the tour.

"Trying to tone it down a little bit, currently," Finn said. "I'm just talking about me personally. When you're on tour, you lose your voice and stuff when you get real fucked up."

So, it came with equal parts relief and disappointment that my interview with Finn was via telephone (hey, I'll drink whiskey when it's free). The Hold Steady, in case you've missed all the hints, is a party band. Speaking about the band's appearance at Pitchfork's Intonation Festival this summer, its stage manager said: "They're the only band I know that asks for a full case of beer and a bottle of Maker's Mark before each show and guarantees it'll be gone by the end of the set." However, Finn is quick to point out that he's learning balance.

"We can't always have those shows," Finn said. "But, (Intonation) was a wild one. I think that's what happened that day for sure. We've certainly built this sort of reputation as a party band and it's not entirely unwarranted, but I think we're currently learning to kind of manage the fans' expectations. Because if people expect you to drink a bottle of whiskey onstage every night, it's going to be really hard to do."

With that kind of a wild reputation flagging the band, you may be surprised to find out that The Hold Steady is also currently the cream of the intellectual crop. Highbrow publications like The New Yorker and brainy radio service National Public Radio have both done extensive features on the band, following their sophomore release, Separation Sunday. The album showcases a band with an extensive knowledge of pop culture, religious philosophy, rock chops and classical literature (not really Motley Crue stuff). Finn, who has been making music since 1994 - when his previous band Lifter Puller formed (they disbanded in 2000) - takes it all in stride.

"It's flattering for one," Finn said. "But it definitely doesn't seem like an overnight thing because, like you said, I've been doing it a long time and I think it helps you put it all in perspective. It really helps you enjoy it more too when it finally comes."

It's Finn's and The Hold Steady's down-to-earth nature that make any critic and fan proud to see them enjoying their current success. It's a refreshing thing to hear a musician, who is currently enjoying boatloads of success, use the word "exciting" continuously. Ask Finn about anything and he's got a positive response. The tour? "All the shows have been really, really great." His move from Minneapolis (after Lifter Puller disbanded) to New York? "It was exciting in a lot of ways. I would say there's a lot of sacrifices and hardships that go with living in New York at times, but there are plenty of rewards, too."

Even the band's recent invitation to perform acoustically for Littleton High School in Colorado (where teacher Tom Uhl - who invited the band to play after hearing them on NPR - has had his students studying the band's lyrics for the school's Mental Health Monday Program) stirs up an excited response from Finn.

"(Tom) deserves a lot of credit for forward thinking and it's exciting. To me, rock 'n' roll can be a very, very positive thing," Finn said. "That's not always how it's portrayed, and I think this is a great example of something where it's being used for the good."

It's hard to stop Finn once he gets started. He talks so passionately and sincerely about things other "it" bands seem to take for granted. Like selling out the Bowery Ballroom in New York on back-to-back nights.

"I mean that was a big deal," Finn said. "In May, we released (Separation Sunday) and had a show scheduled at the Bowery Ballroom - which was a fairly big venue for us - so we were really concerned about bringing people in. And the next thing you know, it was sold out in advance."

To see what will be one of the semester's most exciting shows by the year's most exciting band, check out The Hold Steady at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for the 21+ show. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. and The Cops and The Constantines open the show.

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