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The Hold Steady at the Grammy Museum: Inside the band's 'age appropriate' new album

May 4, 2010 |  1:21 pm


It's hard to imagine there could be a music question that could render Craig Finn -- front man of Hold Steady, one of the wordier bands in rock 'n' roll -- speechless. But it happened Monday night at the Grammy Museum, where the band was appearing to discuss its fifth album in six years, "Heaven is Whenever." 

How does it feel, a young female fan asked the 38-year-old practitioner of barroom poetics, to play to a crowd that's equally split between fans that are "your age, and a lot of people around my age?" The question came near the end of a 45-minute or so Q&A, and while Finn and his bandmates laughed and shrugged it off, it was the evening's third or fourth reminder that the Hold Steady aren't getting any younger. 

But stumbling over the question was perhaps the most appropriate response. "Heaven is Whenever," released Tuesday via Los Angeles label Vagrant Records, is largely about aging awkwardly, as the band's rock 'n' roll anthems and relationship ruminations are tempered with bluesy touches and lilting harmonies. If the boys in the band are still chasing the girls who do them no good, "Heaven is Whenever" is an album of lessons learned.

Performing a handful of songs in the Grammy Museum's pristinely-tuned 200-seat theater, the Hold Steady lacked its normal rock 'n' roll punch. In the stripped-down, acoustic setting, the band's typically utilitarian bar band riffs -- normally designed for pushing drunken celebrations well past last call -- took on a more somber quality. 

New song "The Weekenders" was a midlife-crisis hangover, with Tad Kubler's guitar striking evocative, scene-setting tones. "I'm pretty sure I wasn't your first choice," Finn sang, trading in the band's sing-speak boasting of its early days for something more quiet and nostalgic. "I think I was the last one remaining." 

Moderator Scott Goldman, a VP of the Recording Academy's charitable arm Musicares, picked up on the lived-in feel of the Hold Steady's latest work. A pre-concert interview focused on Finn's cross-generational lyrical approach. The album's second track, "Soft in the Center," for instance, plays out like a letter of advice directed toward the band's younger, male-heavy fanbase. "You can't get every girl, you'll get the ones you love the best," Finn sings, knowing full-well his counsel will be ignored.

"It kind of comes from the same place when you're walking down the street, and you see a 14-year-old kid, and you're like, 'The next 10 years are going to be so awful'," Finn said. "I want to be like, 'Dude, it's going to be all right.' That's sort of in some ways here in the record. It's about how much it hurts in the end to settle, and how it's going to be all right in trusting in yourself."

The tone is carried over in new song "The Smidge," which, on record, deals with a loss of expectations via crunchy guitars and a crowd-pandering cowbells. Musically, it plods, but lyrically, it's a little heartbreaking, and Goldman asked Finn to expand on the song's key refrain of "we used to want it all / now we just want a little bit." 

"That speaks of the settling I was talking about," Finn said, noting that the song was inspired by Led Zeppelin's "The Crunge," and written after a pal ranted that he didn't want to drink with his girlfriend's co-workers. 

"Right now, I'm coming from a very content place," Finn continued. "That is about settling, and doing something you don't want to do because it's what you're supposed to be doing.... That's a story about people, couples."  

Often pegged as one of the more literate bands in rock, Hold Steady has a front man in Finn who has always had a novelist's eye for detail. "You're a beautiful girl, and you're a pretty good waitress," he sings on "Hurricane J," one of "Heaven Is Whenever's" more winning songs. Even though it wasn't electrified, and the bespectacled Finn, in a plaid shirt and tan pants, danced like a suburban dad, the song packed a noticeable emotional uplift. Kubler's guitar hit just at the right moment, turning the song from a lecture to an arm raiser.  

The song essentially answered the fan's question about the age of the group's fan base, as Finn pleads with a young woman to get her life in order. It was the Hold Steady documenting the teenage experience, yet still sounding like a bunch of guys on the cusp of 40.

"It feels age-appropriate," Finn said earlier of the new album. "Even though I'm 38 years old, I feel like it's a record from a bunch of people about that age. ... The way we behave now is quite a bit different. I feel like it has taken on a schedule. When we go overseas, we're thinking about the mental and physical heath of what we do, and the responsibility of trying to play a show every night. A couple of tours we did, I literally couldn't sing for a couple weeks at a time. That doesn't seem responsible."

--Todd Martens

The Hold Steady play the El Rey,  5515 Wilshire Blvd., Wednesday night. The show is sold out, although deals can be found

Photo credit: Mark Seliger

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