The Hold Steady stays positive on new album and tour

WASHINGTON Thu Aug 28, 2008 12:57pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Drawing packed houses and four-star reviews, buzz band The Hold Steady may have finally built the ecstatic rock and roll experience they've been singing about for years.

Over the course of four albums, the Brooklyn act with the boozy, classic sound has grown from critics' darlings to rock-festival favorites who have opened for the Rolling Stones.

Along the way, they've drawn an obsessive fan base that makes their own T-shirts and dissects lyrics in online forums.

"Sometimes I'm blown away by how close people are paying attention," singer Craig Finn said in an interview.

The Hold Steady's music rewards that kind of close attention.

Against a bombastic guitars-and-piano attack that recalls Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, Finn weaves druggy coming-of-age tales in a bark that sounds like Lou Reed with a bad head cold.

Characters with biblical names like Gideon and Hallelujah stagger through nightclubs and pass out at parties, cropping up again from song to song and album to album. Pills, powders, saints and Midwestern streets are lovingly cataloged, and the transformative power of rock music is a recurring theme.

Finn says he has tried to create a unique world through his lyrics, drawing on a Minneapolis adolescence steeped in Catholicism and punk rock. In dozens of notebooks, he's sketched out a master narrative that reveals itself a little more in each song.

"It's like a tree. You're just hanging stories on it like Christmas ornaments, so there's this big structure that I can fill in details on," he said. "There's a lot of ideas that get dumped and then come back on a later record."

The stories turn darker on the band's latest album, "Stay Positive," as the partying leads to knife fights, addiction and the inevitable process of aging, if not quite growing up. The title track comes off as a desperate plea to stick together.

Live, the same songs come off as triumphant. At a recent sold-out show at Washington's 9:30 Club, the crowd sang along with entire songs, even those available only as bootlegs, and urged the band back for two sets of encores.

The band flew out to London the next day, maintaining a rigorous touring schedule that will stretch into next year.

With Internet song copying a continued problem for the music industry -- "Stay Positive" leaked nearly two months before its official release date -- live shows are a crucial way for The Hold Steady to build its following.

"In this day and age with Facebook and e-mail and all that stuff, the act of getting people in a room and having them commune around this one thing, music, is unique and exciting," Finn said.

Guitarist Tad Kubler said the band set out to put on rousing shows when it formed early this decade, partly out of disgust with the prevailing dance/punk sound then popular in New York.

"It didn't look like it was fun," Kubler said. "For us, our greatest intention was to have a good time."

That good time has frequently ended with fans swarming the stage as the band members pass around a bottle of whiskey. But it's not as easy to recover from a night of revelry now that the musicians are in their mid-30s, Finn said.

"With our touring schedule, it's just saying, 'What do I want to feel like tomorrow?'" Finn said. "I just know waking up hung over on the bus is a terrible feeling."

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