Heaven is a rock band

From indie darlings to worldwide rock stars, The Hold Steady is enjoying successs

photo by Mark Seliger

The Hold Steady performs with Jaill Monday, Aug. 23, 8 p.m., at the Senator Theatre. Tickets: $18-$20, www.ticketweb.com.
Senator Theatre
517 Main St. www.jmaxproductions.net

Senator Theatre

517 Main St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 898-1497

“I think live is what we do best,” said singer/lyricist/guitarist Craig Finn. “The Hold Steady thing is to get people into a room, drink some beer, bump into some people, throw up your hands, maybe throw your beer in the air and turn up the amps. That’s what we offer: Come out and stand around with a bunch of people who love rock ’n’ roll as much as you do.”

That’s been the band’s raison d’être since it formed six years ago, and it has developed a legion of loyal fans that bond with each other and the band amid the guitar-driven reverie.

That said, Finn says he still looks out from the stage to find some audience members absorbed not with the music, but with capturing the show on their smart phones—which strikes him as out of place.

“We play shows and I see the people that are filming it, recording it so they can put it up on You-Tube,” he said. “I want to say, ‘You’re right here. Put down your camera and be in the moment.’ But that’s not going to change anytime soon, so no reason to waste time on it.”

Instead, The Hold Steady concentrates on putting on the best possible show.

“I understand the sacrifices people make to come see us,” Finn said. “It’s a responsibility to play as well as we can every night. In the beginning, we had some Replacements-y nights where we drank too much. I came to the realization that wasn’t charming, at least not for this band.”

The Replacements reference is appropriate. Finn and his co-songwriter, guitarist Tad Kubler, come from Minnesota, and The Hold Steady songs are infused with the place and spirit of the Replace-ments, the Minneapolis band that turned out to be one of the best of the ’80s—when the teenaged Finn was discovering music.

“They’re my favorite band,” he said. “They’re a big part of why I’m in a rock band. When we started The Hold Steady, it was ‘Wow, there are no bands with big guitars and smart lyrics. That’s what the Replacements thing was. What about a smart band that rocks?’ The Springsteen comparison [to The Hold Steady] comes up a lot. I’ve listened to 100 Replacements records for every Springsteen record and I’m a huge Springsteen fan.”

Finn and Kubler cut their teeth in the Minneapolis scene in the late ’90s with the band Lifter Puller before moving to the East Coast. They formed The Hold Steady in 2003 and released their debut, Almost Killed Me, the next year. Now based out of New York City, the band has gone on to put out four more records of anthemic, barroom rock ’n’ roll that readily draw on those Replacements and Springsteen influences, blending them as always with Finn’s smart stories about those Boys and Girls in America (the title of the band’s most critically acclaimed album, from 2006).

Heaven Is Whenever, the band’s new release, is more of the same, which some critics have derided while fans have snapped it up.

Finn said he was aware of the pressure to produce now that The Hold Steady has become an established band.

“I was very conscious we were making our fifth record,” he said. “When you’re making your fifth record, you think, ‘I’m not a household name, but maybe we’re part of the establishment now’… I think the tone or the voice of the record is imparting wisdom. … A girl who interviewed me said she felt like it was a really cool older brother talking to you.”

In addition to passing on advice to those who stumble through sketchy parties, bang around in bars and restaurants and are going through romantic difficulties, Heaven Is Whenever rocks just as hard, with stronger guitars than the last couple Hold Steady records.

“The biggest difference is Franz [Nicolay], our keyboard player, left the band,” Finn said. “We wrote it as a four-piece, so it became more of a guitar record. There’s some piano on it, but it’s not all over the place. We didn’t try to fill up the record with sound. So there’s more space on the record, more dynamics on the record. The space makes it rock harder.”