The Hold Steady: America's greatest bar band

"I hope when we play, someone feels like I did when I saw the Replacements in high school" -- Craig Finn

October 19, 2006 12:00 AM ET

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 1011 from October 19, 2006. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

On a late-summer afternoon, five bandmates are sitting around a restaurant in Brooklyn, knocking back beer and whiskey. They talk about what combinations of booze create the perfect onstage buzz, playing shows in small-town America and cranking classic rock in their tour van. "Kiss occupies an interesting space," says the singer. "Like, 'You think that song sucks? Put on Kiss.'" Big laughter. They also recall the occasional overly soused gig. "In Bowling Green, I did lots of Jäger shots," says the guitar player. "I wanted to hop this railing and play a solo. Instead, I hit my head on some lights and fell ass-over-teakettle. But I kept playing, Nigel Tufnel–style." Bigger laughter.

Meet the Hold Steady, five brainy, hard-partying thirtysomethings who just happen to be one of the best bands in America. There's nothing particularly hip about them: Their songs combine awesomely visceral riff rock with crack-voiced singer-guitarist Craig Finn's terrific burnout narratives — evoking an updated version of Springsteen or the Replacements. "We're Midwestern guys who play big riffs," says bassist Galen Polivka. "When we first heard Craig do what he does over what we do, we were like, 'Oh, this is a very good thing.' "

Right now, the Brooklyn-via-mostly Minneapolis quintet is on a serious hot streak. The forthcoming Boys and Girls in America is the group's third great album in three years and the most accessible yet. Amid killer choruses, Finn spits tender and hilarious love stories about troubled kids, all-ages shows, Izzy Stradlin and heroic partying. They recently signed to indie powerhouse Vagrant Records and are making the move from critically acclaimed indie band to road-warrior rock heroes — as evidenced by a sizzling set before 8,000 at this summer's Lollapalooza.

Which makes the band happy, especially after toiling away for years in other touring groups — notably, beloved Minneapolis quintet Lifter Puller for Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler — and working crappy day jobs. "After a show," says Polivka, "this kid was like, 'I can't believe I'm talking to you, dude!' " Kubler jumps in: "Yeah, and you can talk to me on Saturday when I'm serving you drinks, too."

Finn is nearly as engaging and funny as he is on his records. On a different afternoon at a Brooklyn bar he's wearing glasses and a Minnesota Twins cap and toting a copy of Philip Roth's American Pastoral. You could peg him as a mild-mannered grad student, but he's intimately familiar with a certain kind of unfamous rock & roll lifestyle. (Typical Finn lyric: "We had some massive highs, we had some crushing lows/We had some lusty little crushes, we had those all-ages matinee hardcore shows.") "My lyrics don't have a one-to-one relationship to real life," Finn says. "But, to a degree, those stories are my life."

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