The Hold Steady's Craig Finn is fine with looking more like a librarian than rocker

·5 min read

Feb. 25—It's an honor when Craig Finn namechecks your town. The Hold Steady singer-songwriter takes lyrics as seriously as Bruce Springsteen and the Replacements' Paul Westerberg. The diminutive frontman is possibly the greatest songsmith you don't know.

"I know we made plans to meet in Spokane / But the way I make plans, you gotta take it with a grain of salt" is how Finn kicks off the catchy and quirky "Star 18" from the Hold Steady's excellent 2019 album, "Thrashing Thru the Passion."

The Brooklyn-based band has played a number of times in Spokane going back to a gig at the Big Dipper in 2009. So Finn must have been impacted on some level by Spokane. Apparently, there was almost a physical impact in Spokane for the Hold Steady.

"I have a memory being around the club (the Big Dipper), and someone was throwing bags of garbage from the second-floor window to the ground," keyboardist Franz Nicolay said while calling from his Berkeley, California, home. "I guess it was just easier than walking it down. It was a welcome from Spokane."

The trash toss wasn't a message directed at the band's music. The Hold Steady has been as consistent as any independent rock band since emerging in 2004 with its debut album, "Almost Killed Me." The Hold Steady's 2006 high-water mark, "Boys and Girls in America," is one of the finest albums of that decade.

There's no band quite like the Hold Steady, which makes grand sonic statements a la Springsteen but maintains a grittiness of the Replacements. It's guitar-driven rock with unpretentious and provocative poetry from Finn, who loves his cities.

"She said, 'I know I look tired, but everything's fried, here in Memphis" from "Sequestered in Memphis." "We walked across that grain belt bridge into bright new Minneapolis," Finn sings during "Party Pit." "Craig is unique," Nicolay said. "He writes these personal essays about people that are real and meaningful."

The bespectacled Finn, 49, who looks more a librarian than rock star, accomplishes that again with what he has penned for the Hold Steady's "Open Door Policy." The band's latest album, which dropped Feb. 19, is filled with dramatic and hook-laden songs.

The thread that ties the Hold Steady's most cohesive album together is alienation. Finn has matured as a songwriter. The lyrics are more concise. Many of the new tunes are deep, and, like many the Hold Steady songs, welcome humor is tossed into the mix.

Becoming a singer-songwriter while coming of age in his native Minneapolis in the 1980s was an alien notion for Finn. "When I was going to shows as a teenager, I thought the only thing I was qualified to do was buy records," Finn said during our 2017 interview. "But things were changing when I was entering adulthood.

"All rockers weren't golden gods anymore. Kurt Cobain wore those Sub Pop 'Loser' T-shirts. Guys in bands weren't trying to be rock stars. Some of the guys I admired in bands were self-deprecating. The playing field changed, and I gave it a shot, and I discovered that I could write songs, make music and perform. What else could I ever want?"

Like the Boss, Finn excels when writing about the trials and tribulations of the everyman.

"There is no one like Springsteen," Finn said. "He's a brilliant writer who nails it when he writes about these characters who have to get out of this place. It's so relatable. Life isn't easy. Most people struggle in one way or another, and he captures that. He also paints vivid pictures."

Finn does the same. His songs are filled with detail often about troubled and flawed individuals trying to make ends meet.

"I think the people who lead normal lives are interesting," Finn said. "The ones who are having a hard time keeping their heads above water fascinate me. The disenfranchised have a place in my songs."

Like many albums that are finally seeing the light of day, The Hold Steady delayed the release of their album. "The new songs were finished in 2019," Nicolay said. "It was definitely time to get this music out to people. We're working on new music, so this may as well be released."

To fully understand the Hold Steady, the band must be experienced live. The band's hometown shows in their native Brooklyn every December are nearly mythic. Finn is the life of the party belting out his self-described sing-along songs, which are referenced in song.

The Hold Steady has delivered powerful, honest and unusual tunes over eight albums. Finn's swarthy characters are his most fascinating be they wagering on a longshot at the horse track ("I got a girl and she don't have to work / She can tell which horse is gonna finish in first"), making out in the medical tent at a music festival ("He quoted her some poetry, he's Tennyson in denim and sheepskin, he looked a lot like Izzy Stradlin") or hoisting a few brews atop the city while welcoming the greatest season of the year ("Summer grant us all the power / to drink on top of water towers").

Finn, like the better songwriters, takes listeners away. Music aficionados can use an escape during this endless, pandemic-ridden winter. Finn is always up for providing that since he has an open door policy.