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Finn for the win: Hold Steady ready to rock your face off

Patrick Beach
The Hold Steady

7:45 p.m. Sunday, Orange stage

I'm pretty sure I heard of the Hold Steady before I heard them, around the time "Separation Sunday," their second album, came out in 2005. I thought: Tortured Catholic Midwesterners, literate, ginormous guitars, anthemic songs, singer can't really sing and wears glasses? Dude, I could be IN that band.

Turns out I'm not the only one to feel that way.

"A lot of our appeal might be our fans feel the same way," vocalist-guitarist-songwriter and transplanted Minneapolitan Craig Finn said from his Brooklyn home. "We're believable."

They're also one of the two or three best bands going these days, especially live. If you've ever been in a club and heard a few hundred people shout, "Here's a toast to St. Joe Strummer" or "Subpoenaed in Texas/sequestered in Memphis," well, that's as close to seeing Springsteen at the Stone Pony as most of us will get.

"Heaven Is Whenever," which dropped earlier this year, is a little anthemic, a little less inviting of audience participation, which was partly by design.

"We were hyper-aware we were making a fifth record," said Finn, 39. "When you start writing the songs, it was like, ‘We've done this before.' You never want to lapse into self-parody. Every time we want to do something a little more musical. My singing is a little more polished. I wanted to do something other than me shouting over the band."

Lyrically, however, Finn is going to the same well, expanding on the same narrative he's been working out from the beginning, telling stories about kids in the Twin Cities torn between spirituality and chemical entertainment. Working with a stable of characters, the band's body of work is not unlike "Doonesbury," and it's as dense as "The Wire." Finn — perhaps the world's most unconventionally charismatic frontman — is as likely to reference Yeats or Nabokov as Joe Strummer, and he has a habit of referring to past songs in the story, stitching together a tale that comes into sharper focus with each record. This lyrical conceit is not something you expect from a roaring rock and roll band.

"It's a big artificial Christmas tree I keep hanging ornaments on," he said. "Maybe the beginning and the end have been stated, but I'm giving more detail with every record. I'm not writing a soap opera. Nobody's coming back from the dead."

Fans, for their part, are known for obsessively annotating Finn's lyrics as if he were another Minnesota native of note, Bob Dylan. Check out http://holdsteady.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Literary_References for a wee taste. Finn is a little taken aback by all the hubbub, saying, "That's a healthy part of the dialogue between artist and audience," but "you can't be combing the Internet saying, ‘No, no, you're wrong.' "

You can get a taste of that artist-audience relationship by watching their tour documentary, "A Positive Rage," which happened to cover the period in which the band broke big. But Finn had a different reaction.

"I think we all watched ‘A Positive Rage' once and were like, ‘Oh, wow. That was really unhealthy," he said with a laugh. "That was a specific time. It looks like we were all drinking too much. At that time I believe there was a sense that this was all going to get taken away from us. That meant partying to the utmost every night because we're never going to be in Oklahoma City again. Now I don't plan to just be on this tour but to be touring most of the next year."

They do have a work ethic, that's for sure. Finn likens a band slowing down or taking any extended break to your daughter saying she's taking a semester off from college — you know it's over. So far they've played 48 states (South Dakota and Wyoming: You never call, you never write) and have "a variety of experiences," Finn said. "We can play for 100 people in Lexington, Ky., and a week later sell out the Beacon Theater in New York City."

The crowds certainly aren't going anywhere. After keyboardist Franz Nicolay moved on at the beginning of this year, the band responded by adding not one but two people — third guitarist Steve Selvidge and keyboardist Dan Neustadt — to the lineup. Finn says it's like taking the stage with a small gang.

To wrap things up, one more question: How come you rarely play guitar when you're singing? Too busy gesticulating or what?

"If you look at our stage volume, it's optional whether I play at all," Finn said. "Now we're playing with a six-piece band, so there's even more volume. Someone suggested I play guitar like someone wears a necklace — it gives me something to do with my hands. If my amp broke, I don't think you'd be any the wiser."