The Hold Steady
July 19, Arch Street Tavern, 85 Arch St., Hartford, (860) ) 246-7610, archstreettavern.com
Rock and Roll is revolutionary. It's about sex and rebellious youth. It's about a new generation forging its own world in contrast to the uptight one handed to them. It's about making noise and smashing shit. That's all true, but at this point — Elvis Presley having stepped into Sun Studios nearly 60 years ago, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys celebrating 50 years, and the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind having been commemorated — it's also a bit old. Rock now is about tradition as much as it is about anything else. The Hold Steady, who perform a rare intimate show in Hartford on Thursday, are among the greatest 21st Century rock bands, possessing both a sense of history and combustible energy. The band plays loud muscular guitar rock filled with stories about everyday people fucking up, getting busted and seeing the light. If there's a band that carries the fist-pumping cathartic tradition of Thin Lizzy and Bruce Springsteen it is the Hold Steady. They should be playing arenas, but they're playing packed hometown clubs instead. (Even better.)
Craig Finn, the band's singer and lyricist, spoke to the Advocate this week from Boston, in advance of a string of shows in the northeast. Finn, who released his first solo album at the start of this year, has also been doing a handful of solo shows. He says the solo shows, which don't showcase any Hold Steady material, are a chance for him to do something a little quieter and to test out his own new material. Finn says he's been slightly intimidated by the idea of getting up in front of crowd with just him and an acoustic guitar. Under the theory that anything that scares you should possibly be tried, Finn went for it. He enjoyed himself, except for "the aloneness and the lack of camaraderie" of being without a bunch of bandmates when he walked off stage.
Finn and the Hold Steady offer an alternative to aloneness. Their concerts have always doubled as tent revivals. A Hold Steady show can be ecstatic, with that communal uplift that some people look for in church. It's a connection that makes sense to Finn.
"I've felt a lot of positivity from rock and roll," he says. "I kind of want to share that with people."
Likewise, Finn doesn't shy away from religious imagery in his songs, and there's a thread of Catholic soul-searching that runs through the Hold Steady's material. Some of the characters in the song see angels, they yearn for grace and redemption and absolution. But if rock music has always been about pushing boundaries, Finn may have found a few unexpected ones. As it turns out, singing about religious characters can make folks squeamish.
"There's so much devil in music," says Finn, mentioning "Sympathy For the Devil," "Runnin' with the Devil" and a few others. "But people get really nervous when you bring up Jesus."
In addition to Jesus, the Hold Steady's songs have plenty of recurring characters — Holly, Gideon, Charlemagne and others — and recurring scenes and settings — the camps along the Mississippi River, rock shows, bars. Finn has written about drunken hook-ups, dealers, small-time criminals, wastoids. It's not hard to imagine him making the leap from the rock-song format to fiction. "I would really like to write a novel. And I've tried before and it didn't go so well," says Finn. He still might give it a shot sometime.
"It's not happening this year," he says.
Finn, 40, says that he's shifting into writing songs bout more grown-up characters.
"I'm more and more interested in writing about adults — adult problems and adult frustrations," says Finn. "There haven't been that many people who do that well."
After a few member changes — the loss of a longtime keyboard player Franz Nicolay and the addition of a third guitarist, Steve Selvidge — the Hold Steady is in the process of writing and recording its next album, the band's sixth full-length studio record. Finn says it'll probably be out in early 2012. "It's still going to be hopefully a big rock and roll record," says Finn.