A music fan recently approached Craig Finn, lead singer of The Hold Steady, with an observation. He'd seen about 40 bands perform over the previous year, and only members of Finn's band and Drive-By Truckers were seen smiling onstage.
Finn smiled at the notion.
Let's see. Singing and bashing around on guitars while an adoring audience cheers your every move — how could that not be a good time? Can you really hold a frown all night?
The Hold Steady isn't just a party band. But they seem one of the few to bridge the gap between an angst-ridden indie scene that plays out its private pain onstage and pure populists who want you to enjoy yourself at the expense of thinking. By little coincidence, the Hold Steady has just launched a long concert tour with Drive-By Truckers.
Finn has noticed the serious faces, too.
"Maybe it's something we never got back to after grunge," he said. "Also, a lot of indie rock seems to place a premium on irony. I think being honest and uncontrived helps bring people back to the notion of fun in rock and roll."
Now 37, Finn has been part of different music scenes. He has the perspective, and receding hairline, that a few years bring. He is often described as having one of the least rock 'n' roll looks around — think of a broker on holiday — and it allowed him to sit in a crowded New York park one sunny day and talk about his work with little risk of being bothered.
He and guitarist Tad Kubler played together during the 1990s in Lifter Puller, an indie band from Minneapolis that ran its course. They both moved to New York, Kubler to work in photography and Finn to try his hand as a writer.
Music still had its appeal, so Finn and Kubler decided to start a rock band. They wanted to have a good time, play some local bars, and had no plan for world domination. When The Hold Steady played its first show in January 2003, Finn was surprised at how many people came. It was an introduction to the power of the Internet, since many people were Lifter Puller fans curious to see what the two were up to.
Four years later, they opened for the Rolling Stones before 50,000 people in Ireland.
Schooled in punk, but not generic
The Hold Steady has the driving rock sound of a band schooled in punk. In "Constructive Summer," the song that opens the band's most recent album, Finn references Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" and urges fans to "raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer. I think he might have been our only decent teacher."
Yet it's more atmospheric than a generic punk song, with piano breaks weaving between the guitars. You half expect its characters, friends looking to break out of a humdrum life, to start singing, "it's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win." Its spirit is Bruce Springsteen updated for a new generation.
On the same album, the Hold Steady breaks out a talkbox, an oddity thought to have been mercifully retired years ago by Peter Frampton. Kubler plays a guitar solo where it sounds like he's standing in a spotlight as a member of REO JourneyRush.
To paraphrase a Finn lyric, first we were skeptical. But it works.
Crossing a divide between music scenes was very much a part of The Hold Steady's plan.
"We wanted this band to be as inclusive as possible, in terms of our audience," he said. "That said, it took us a while to develop the confidence and ability to make a bigger and better record, which could also be more populist."
The Hold Steady has built an audience primarily through energetic live shows that leaves fans feeling part of a community. Maxim magazine calls them "the best band in America." Paste magazine qualifies it, saying they're "one of the best bands in America." The new "Stay Positive" disc got up to No. 30 on the Billboard album charts.
Finn is a storyteller instead of a confessional songwriter, and his focus is often on damaged characters trying to struggle their way through life.
He concludes: "I know it's unlikely she'll ever be mine. So I mostly just pray she don't die."
"I love stories about forgiveness and redemption," he said. "Desperate people's stories advance quicker, and their vulnerabilities often help to tell a bigger story. I like to think my songs are cinematic, rather than personal. It's hard for me not to feel self-indulgent if I was to write a true song about myself."
If their album "Stay Positive" has a theme, it's about aging within in a business that often doesn't allow for it. Finn likes to rock, but he also keeps healthy as a dedicated runner.
The title cut salutes the band's fans: "It's one thing to start with a positive jam, and it's another thing to see 'em through," Finn sings. "And we couldn't have done this if it wasn't for you."
Finn said he's better able to realize what matters and what doesn't than he might have if The Hold Steady's success came when he was a dozen years or so younger. He's been able to enjoy the places he's been able to go with the band.
"It has allowed me to have logical and realistic expectations and goals," he said.