When The Hold Steady – the toast of Brooklyn’s big, broad bar bands – hit Philly’s Union Transfer for a two-day stint (July 26-27), it won’t be the first or last time they’ve holed up here for an extended stay. Between countless Philadelphia Hold Steady gigs since its 2003 formation, to say nothing of its solo shows from keyboardist Franz Nicolay and leader-singer-lyricist Craig Finn, it’s as if they’re never not here, and never not selling out wherever they perform.
“I was here at least twice last year,” says Finn after being reminded of gigs at at Union Transfer and Milkboy for his 2017 solo album, “We All Want the Same Things.”
“I love it in Philly. I have friends there that’s I’ve had for years," he adds. "It’s a great American city, There’s always a lot of Springsteen fans around, and it’s always a positive experience being there. Philly reps pretty hard for The Hold Steady.”
Finn’s notation of Philadelphia’s devotion to all-things-Bruce is crucial to The Hold Steady ethos. The sextet – in sound and lyrical vision – are boldly audacious, even dense, storytellers who’ll discuss redemption, hometowns and loss just as soon as look at you, with a sonic vibe equal parts Hüsker Dü (Finn grew up in Minneapolis, home of the Dü), and the E Street Band.
Craig Finn of The Hold Steady on music, Philly and more
The lyricist-singer mentioned that when it comes to writing for The Hold Steady, he normally comes in with words after guitarist Tad Kubler comes in with the music - what Finn called, “the big riffs, the big drums.” With that, Finn’s stories on albums such as “Stay Positive” and “Teeth Dreams”, or 2018’s spate of singles-only releases, have to be epic dramatic and cinematic. “These are blockbuster movies in comparison to my little independent films.”
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Finn is talking about the primary differences between what he does as the mouthpiece of The Hold Steady, as opposed to the intimate, quiet outlook of his solo albums such as “Clear Heart Full Eyes” and “Faith in the Future.” Finn claims that his solo material is “more me, or me more vulnerable, dealing with little characters. In a nice way, I can look at things that are more mundane. The good mundane, not the bad mundane.”
One of the more interesting aspects of Finn’s most recent solo album, “We All Want the Same Things,” is that he’s created loud characters that speak out politically – or place themselves in inexplicably political situations - rather than having him rant in the first person. In that regard, the album is like “Hamilton” meets “The Crucible,” only quieter and sans hip hop.
“Trump was new and I just wanted to write songs about a group of people just working had to keep their heads above water,” says Finn. “My solo albums paint smaller portraits of real people.”
For that reason alone, it would seem as if The Hold Steady’s 2017 single “The Entitlement Crew” – one of a series of brand new releases from the band – might benefit from Finn’s recent politicism and be about The One Percent. Not true. “That’s funny, as a lot of people thought that, but it is really about hipsters, cocky millennials too cool for school, VIPs who always think they should be on the guest list, and that everything is for them.”
Everything for The Hold Steady, at present, is about releasing singles, and not albums, as the just dropped “The Stove & the Toaster” - a follow up to “Eureka” – shows the band preferring short sharp bursts of music as opposed to long volleys. “It’s realy just how the industry is going,” says Finn. “Plus, it’s more fun and spontaneous and we don’t have to dress up for any photo shoots. Besides, if people want to hear a whole album, they can just wait until we drop a few more singles, and listen to them all in a row.”