by John Tarpley
Over the course of five albums, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis band of 30-somethings has stuck to the traditional rock rituals that hold a guitar solo around every corner and a drum fill between each verse.
But on the other hand, no one's going to accuse The Hold Steady of being ordinary, either. Heck, they're regularly accused of being one of the best bands in America. And that's an indictment I'll take part of any day.
You can credit Craig Finn for just that. Since 2004, he's become an unlikely hero for rock music. He's an unabashedly Catholic 39-year-old who looks like a Harvest Foods manager. And instead of singing, he exclaims, half Elmer Gantry, half hip-hop.
He's as much of a poet-author as he is a lyricist; all of his songs are a thread in an epic, non-linear song cycle about a gang of drunken, aimless Midwesterners. The lyrics, when not concerned with bad sex, hard drugs and strange redemption, read like a summer syllabus, referencing Berryman, Tennyson, Kerouac and Yeats.
The literate anti-rocker Finn spoke to the Times in advance of The Hold Steady's upcoming show at Revolution, their first in Little Rock in three years.
Q. You're known for being this relatable, everyday guy, but you've become a bit of an icon because of — and in spite of — it. What's it like trying to reconcile those two personalities?
A. It's something I'm trying to get better at. Like, if we're playing a show and I'm walking down the street towards the club, chances are there's going to be people outside who know who I am. But if I'm at home in Brooklyn, in a coffee shop, it kinda scares me because you want to be as good to everyone as possible, but at the same time, you don't always want to be "on," so to speak.
Like, just yesterday I was standing in line at Dunkin' Donuts when this girl next to me slaps my arm and says "hey, Craig, I just got this tattoo of your lyrics."
Q. Which one?
A. "We are our only saviors" [from "Constructive Summer"], right next to a bird flying out of a cage. At times, stuff like that can be overwhelming, a lot of times it's cool, but mostly, it's just flattering that people feel some kinship and appreciation for the music.
Q. Speaking of folks whose lyrics end up in tattoo guns: Ben Nichols sang on your last album, huh?
A. Yeah! Little Rock guy!
Q. Yep! How'd you hook up?
A. Well, I was a fan of Lucero before I met him. When we were working on the "Stay Positive" album, I kept hearing another voice on "Constructive Summer" and "Magazines." We were in the studio and he texted, saying he was coming to town to play a solo show. So I just said "Ben, come on down and sing on this."
Lucero's one of my favorite bands. We've only played together once, but it feels like we should a whole lot more. We always go out to see them when they're in town.
Q. So, I'm not going to embarrass myself by telling you how many times I've seen you guys, but of all the places I've seen The Hold Steady play, it seems Little Rock goes craziest.
A. Yeah, Little Rock is wild. Columbia, Missouri; Toronto, those are other wild towns, but Little Rock is particularly wild. But we haven't been there in a long while. Sometimes it's just the night, though.
When the moon's full, y'know?
The Hold Steady plays Revolution tonight, under, as it would happen, a full moon.