The Hold Steady: America’s Greatest Existing Rock Band

Five reasons the hard-charging members of the Hold Steady became 2008’s rock saviors.

1. They look like you. Or worse.
Physically speaking, the Hold Steady are American the way Oprah’s audience is American, the way the guy who put this magazine in your mailbox is American. Finn is short and slight with a receding hairline and thick glasses. Kubler looks like that guy from your English lit class in college. Bassist Galen Poliv­ka resembles an unpretentious bartender (when not playing bass in the Hold Steady, he actually is an unpretentious bartender). With his short hair and leather jacket, Bobby Drake could be the drummer in any other New York rock band, making him the odd man out. Only keyboardist Franz Nicolay, from New England rather than the Midwest like his band mates, has anything that could be called a “look”: black from head to toe, a cloth cap, and a waxed mustache. “We know that having no image is an image,” says Finn.

2. They have a blue-collar work ethic.
The Hold Steady sound alternately like a punk band playing classic rock or a classic rock band playing punk, a dichotomy that goes back to Finn’s Minnesota childhood. A devout Catholic kid with bad vision and no girl prospects, Finn began playing guitar at 12 and spent his teen years going to hardcore shows and worshiping Twin Cities indie stars the Replacements as well as Bob Dylan and the Band. After studying communications at Boston College, Finn moved back home and formed the new-wavey Lifter Puller, which, despite becoming a genuine local sensation, was met with indifference outside the Twin Cities. “I was exhausted,” he says. “And I was excited to just try to make a decent paycheck.” Married and nearing 30, he settled in Brooklyn, and took an office job at a music Web site just before the info market crash. “I got there right at the end of the boom,” he laughs. “A year earlier, it would have been nice.” A year earlier, however, and there might not have been a Hold Steady.

After forming as a reaction to all the skinny-jeaned, faux-hawked hipsters swamping the Brooklyn music scene, the Hold Steady recorded their first album, 2004’s Almost Killed Me, in just six short days. “It seemed very obvious to us to play this kind of music,” Kubler says. “That’s what we grew up listening to. Very sweet rock songs. People were hungry for something like that.” Since then they’ve toured tirelessly, and added 2005’s Separation Sunday, 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, and now Stay Positive, a streak that rivals the Stones’ from ’68 to ’72 or the Clash’s from ’77 to ’81 in terms of productivity and quality.

3. Like many Americans, they’re Into God and country.
Not since the late ’70s prime of Jim Carroll and Patti Smith has a rock star made it seem so hip to be Catholic. While Finn avoids any urge to proselytize, he’s peppered the Hold Steady’s albums with references to Jesus, Judas, St. Peter, and the resurrection. But rather than drape his songs in spirituality, Finn simply acknowledged the role religion plays in American life, for good or bad. Catholic weekly America magazine called them a “striking exception” to the “irony-laden world of independent rock.”

Although formed in New York, the band’s collective head remains in the middle of the country. Many of the songs are centered in and around the Twin Cities and beyond. From (the fictional) Hostile, Massachusetts to New Orleans, Hoboken, and Ybor City, Florida, the Hold Steady draw on an appreciation for America that recalls Jack Kerouac. At Littleton High School in Littleton, Colorado, one teacher used Hold Steady lyrics to help students study art and depression. The band honored the compliment by performing on campus.

4. They’re all about their fans.
On Stay Positive’s title track, Finn sings about a “unified scene” and how “we couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you.” From the beginning, fans, fellow artists, and rock critics alike were equally captivated. Notoriously decimal-stingy rock site Pitchfork gave Separation Sunday an 8.7 rating, while Boys and Girls merited a white-billed-woodpecker-rare 9.4. In 2006 Blender named them band of the year, while taste-making blog Stereogum named Boys and Girls the year’s best album. The accolades for Stay Positive have been equally rapturous.

5. Craig Finn is this generation’s Bruce Springsteen.
“Somebody once said jokingly to Craig, ‘God, people think you fucking invented the English language!’¿” says Kubler. “And there are some times when I listen to our records and I’m not sure he didn’t. Those stories are incredible.” The one artist to whom the Hold Steady are most often compared is Bruce Springsteen, whose ’70s tales of wayward youth (and unpretty voice) foreshadowed Finn’s. During a Carne­gie Hall tribute to Springsteen last April, Finn performed with his idol on a show-closing jam on 1973’s epic “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” Recalls singer-songwriter Jesse Malin, who was onstage: “That song is 15 minutes long with a million verses, but Craig sang it like he’s been singing it his whole life. Bruce was pretty impressed.” In 2006 the Boss treated Finn to a backstage sit-down. “I was losing my shit,” Finn recalls. “One thing he did tell me, he said ‘Get a good live band—you’ll never go hungry.’ ”