Steady as they go

The Hold Steady earns a reputation as one of the best bar bands

June 26, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun reporter

The press loves to prematurely slap big labels on up-and-coming acts.

KT Tunstall was the next Janis Joplin, and countless young guitarists were the hottest players since Jimi Hendrix. But Brooklyn, N.Y.-based quintet The Hold Steady has actually earned its reputation as one of the best bar bands in America. Last spring, the boys were in Baltimore to play a gig at the Ottobar.

Since then, they've graduated to much-larger venues like Rams Head Live, where they headline tomorrow night.

Watch the odd crew light up a stage, and it's easy to see why. Front man Craig Finn hops around, fiery and red-faced, belting out surprisingly clever lyrics. Guitarist Tad Kubler stands next to Finn, slugging straight from a bottle of Jim Beam and cranking out fuzzy, heavy riffs.

Across the stage, the ever-composed keyboardist, Franz Nicolay, in his driver's cap and suit, bites the cork off a bottle of red wine so he can chug a bit between songs. And just behind those three, bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake turn loose rib-cage rattling rhythms.

For a straight-ahead rock band, The Hold Steady put on a pretty high-energy live show. Before a gig, Finn makes sure there's a foam cushion slipped over his microphone - for safety's sake.

"Microphones have been known to break my teeth," Finn said. "I think three times in The Hold Steady, I've broken my teeth on the microphone."

At this weekend's show, they'll preview songs from their new album, Stay Positive, which comes out in mid-July. It's their fourth studio record, and it has a larger sound than the three previous ones. Horns and a harpsichord add layers to some tunes, but it's still unmistakably a Hold Steady album.

"We've always tried to go in with high ambition and do things we haven't tried before," Kubler said. "We're trying to grow as a band and as players and not necessarily repeat ourselves terribly much. That said, it's not an enormous departure from anything we've done in the past."

Early on in the recording process, producer John Agnello asked Finn to take voice lessons. As a result, Finn said, his voice is stronger and more precise.

"It's really about finding the right place to sing at, which doesn't fatigue your voice," he said. "I've always had melodies I hear in my head, but I think on this record I did a better job of communicating them to the listeners."

The band spent a couple more weeks in the recording studio working on Stay Positive than it has for past albums. Even so, it tinkered with it until time ran out.

"No matter how much time you have in the studio, you're always mixing until the last day," Finn said. "I don't know if any band ever has gotten done early. ... You can always keep trying things."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

The Hold Steady performs at Rams Head Live tomorrow. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance and $18 the day of the show. The venue is at 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com. The band: theholdsteady.com.

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