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Rock ’n’ roll resurrection, amen

The Hold Steady brings literary lyrics and a hell-raising good time to Mojo’s tonight

October 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST

In June The Hold Steady played the Jackpot Saloon in Lawrence, Kan. Maybe because it was Sunday night, maybe because Lawrence wasn’t clued in to the hype surrounding the band — for whatever reason, approximately 30 people were there.

As the opening band played, a man stood at the bar buying a bottle of Budweiser. He looked like Craig Finn, lead singer of The Hold Steady, but he seemed too small to belt out Finn’s brand of singing. Plus, he paid for the beer out of his own pocket. Rock stars don’t pay for their own beer. It couldn’t be him.

But the bespectacled man with the Bud soon took the stage and proceeded to blow away the moderate crowd.

“Sometimes it’s just easiest to buy your own beer,” Finn said by phone earlier this month from his hotel room in Canada. “We’re still at this strange point in the band where we can play in front of 1,100 people in Minneapolis [Finn’s hometown] and 30 people in Lawrence.”

Tonight at Mojo’s, Columbia fans get their first taste of The Hold Steady, right as the band looks ready for a breakthrough. Its sophomore album, Separation Sunday, has drawn rave reviews since its May release. The band performed in a recent promotional campaign for retail behemoth Target and was even mentioned earlier this month in an episode of the hit television series Lost.

Formed in 2003 in Brooklyn, The Hold Steady includes Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler — both were members of Minneapolis cult favorite Lifter Puller — along with keyboardist Franz Nicolay, bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake.

I Want Your Six

Vox accosts performers and music fans with a very sharp pencil and forces them, under duress, to answer six questions.

This week's answers are from Craig Finn, lead singer of The Hold Steady.

1. What is your favorite album?
Let it Be by the Replacements

2. Which album do you wish would spontaneously combust?
Rise by Bad Brains or anything else they did after Quickness

3. What's the best live show you have ever seen?
Bruce Springsteen in '99 or Fugazi in '89

4. What is your favorite make-out album?
Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones

5. What band is so last year?
Any dance-punk band

6. Build your dream band.
Robin Zander on vocals, Bob Stinson on lead guitar, Keith Richards on rhythm guitar, Tommy Stinson on bass and Charlie Watts on drums.

So what’s all the fuss about? It starts with the man behind the microphone. Finn shouts boozy tales of sex, substances, scenesters and salvation in one of the most distinctive voices in rock today, a hoarse yell that channels Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Jim Carroll. Behind him is a band that churns out vintage cock rock — slashing guitars, heavy drums, piano interludes, the works.

Finn’s lyrics make skillful use of literary techniques such as simile, alliteration and internal rhyme. The songs are thick with allusions to people, places and the Bible. Finn’s writing is so dense that NPR footnoted the lyrics to three Hold Steady songs in a feature on its Web site.

“The idea was to create a rock band that was smart,” Finn says. “A lot of rock celebrates the more stupid part of rock.”

Separation Sunday is a storytelling album with material culled from Finn’s youth. The basic story line: Suburban girl Halleluiah (the kids call her Holly) skips too much Catholic school, falls in with pimps and pushers, gets high by the banks of the Mississippi River, disappears for years to points east and west and returns home born-again, limping into Easter Mass ready to tell the congregation how a resurrection really feels.

Finn says he writes a little bit every day, usually 20 to 30 minutes. When the band gets in songwriting mode, someone throws out a riff, and Finn mines his composition books for lyrics as the music comes together.

Finn honed his storytelling style in Lifter Puller, which grew to semi-legendary cult status in Minneapolis before disbanding in 2000. Lifter Puller played Shattered in 1999, but The Hold Steady has never been to Columbia.

If The Hold Steady’s aggressive Lawrence performance is any indication, the band’s show should be strong no matter how many people show up. And don’t be surprised if you see the guys throwing a few back before they take the stage.

“It’ll be fun,” Finn says. “We make it fun wherever we go.”

— Andrew Eder

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