Brooklyn six-piece The Hold Steady are an NYC indie-rock institution. The band's revered songwriter Craig Finn plumbs the depths of the human condition to tell stories that explore power, wealth, mental health, technology, capitalism, consumerism, and survival - issues which have compounded over the last 12 months. Their seventh studio album 'Thrashing Thru The Passion', released 15 years after their debut, showed the band rejuvenated, receiving critical praise far and wide in 2019.
It’s usually around this time of year that The Hold Steady fans make their annual pilgrimage to London. The Hold Steady Weekender every March has become something of an institution in the last few years, where the band play Friday and Saturday night at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, followed by a Sunday lunchtime gig at an even more intimate venue. It did seem for a while that this was The Hold Steady’s future – the group acclaimed as ‘America’s greatest bar band’ by Rolling Stone magazine concentrating on live performances and connecting with adoring fans.
Few bands have left a larger footprint in the mud of 21st-century rock than the Hold Steady. While 2006's Boys and Girls in America became the definitive soundtrack for a generation of uncertain youth, it serves as only one touchstone in a catalogue of highlights. The band's latest offering, Open Door Policy, finds the six-piece at their most comfortable -- and experimental.
Continuing with the expanded lineup reintroduced on 2019's Thrashing Thru the Passion, the Hold Steady are demonstrating the comfort levels of a band with something to say but nothing to prove.
Like the down-and-out characters in their songs, the Hold Steady have endured some rough years. After building one of the most ardent fanbases in modern rock, the group parted ways with their keyboardist Franz Nicolay in 2010, who claimed he felt like a "fox in a hedgehog band. " While the rest of the Hold Steady come off as rock purists who love double-necked guitars, beer-and-shot specials, and Major League Baseball, Nicolay is a classically-trained polymath who writes essays about Wagner, has an MFA in fiction, and uses an Isaiah Berlin reference to explain how it feels to be in the Hold Steady.
The Hold Steady aren't anything if not consistent. Since their 2004 debut Almost Killed Me, Craig Finn and company have delivered energetic, raucous rock songs about hoodrats, addicts, and other down-on-their-luck characters. On their last album, 2019's Thrashing Thru the Passion, the band only doubled-down on their approach (thanks in large part to the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay).
If you've never heard them before, this is as good a place as any to start: It's always a good measure of a record to see how well it would express the artistry of the band if it was a listener's first experience of them, and Open Door Policy is pretty much the best primer for The Hold Steady 's wonderful sound since their 2006 masterpiece Boys and Girls in America. That sound - at once instantly recognisable and devilishly malleable - is a boozy combination of Bruce Springsteen 's earnest grittiness, The Replacements ' reckless charm, The Rolling Stones ' sexy swagger and Thin Lizzy's bright-eyed optimism. Simply put, The Hold Steady borrowed the best bits of the best rock bands of yore, and refashioned those bits into something fresh and vital.
In keeping with their moniker, The Hold Steady have become a byword for indie rock consistency over the years - always riotously good fun live, always solid in terms of their studio return, although perhaps lacking some of the incision of the releases that made their name; the state-of-the-nation reflections of 'Boys and Girls in America', and the freewheeling rock and roll of 'Stay Positive'. The return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay to the fold has apparently reinvigorated the band and steered frontman Craig Finn away from some of the more self-indulgent tendencies that had come to underscore both 'Heaven Is Whenever' and 'Teeth Dreams'. The panoramic fizz of 'Family Farm' is case in point, all rollicking guitars and tense piano breaks, while the buoyant trumpets and swaggering riffery of 'Heavy Covenant' hark back to the juxtaposition between triumphant instrumentation and Craig's nervy storytelling that came to define their best work.
After seven albums and almost two decades as a band, The Hold Steady could easily rest on their laurels, cashing in on their well-earned reputation as America's Best Bar Band. But with the reintroduction of keyboardist Franz Nicolay into the band and a solid return effort in 2019's Thrashing Thru The Passion, the band seemed primed for an unexpected second wind. Open Door Policy continues in that vein, welcoming back fans with newfound instrumental touches to accompany Craig Finn's poetic paeans to shady characters and bad decisions.
On their first four albums, The Hold Steady were regularly called a bar band, which musically they were. Thematically, they always struck me as more of a house party band though. Craig Finn's lyrics were about people we all knew the reluctant drunk, the stoner, the good kid with the beginnings of a coke habit, the alcoholic who would be making us all laugh one minute then scaring the shit out of everyone an hour later, and the person who overdosed a few times.