For some bands, there’s no place like home. For others, there’s no place like wherever they happen to be.
Take sonic rebels The Hold Steady, whose convoluted Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis heritage leaves them without a musical demographic to adhere to. Don’t call them Midwest rock even though they sound like The Replacements – and don’t you dare say they’re the latest New York rock band. They’re hardly from New York.
Indigenous Big Apple bands have every reason to be scared, though. These transplants do the region’s trademarked gritty rock as well as any natives in recent memory.
Along the way, someone must have told them that the seemingly required pilgrimage to The Big Apple, the Mecca for making it big, can be a death wish. There are simply too many bands to stand out. The Hold Steady wouldn’t be bothered with such theories, however – they gave up mountains of loyal fans in their hometown of Minneapolis, ready to start over, career suicide be damned.
Turns out they had nothing to worry about. Their debut album, 2004’s Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss), was released to rave reviews following their geographic and sonic shift.
After forming their musical foundation under the name Lifter Puller in 1998, guitarists Craig Finn and Tad Kubler found the jumpstart they were looking for in Galen Polivka (bass), Bobby Drake (drums) and Franz Nicolay (keys). They injected their music with equal doses of sweat and anger, turning every one of their bar-ready, power-pop songs into a miniature epic. Critics and fans from Manhattan to Los Angeles were floored, and it seemed no top-10 list of 2004 was complete without their debut right at the top.
A raucous blend of East Coast anger and Midwest sensibility, Almost Killed Me sounds much like one would expect an album by an accomplished and introspective poet to be, if it was recorded at four in the morning after a rough night. Is it a drunken ramble, or a nearly perfect album? Many would strongly support the latter, and probably hit you with their beer bottle if you suggested the former.
Nobody thought any band could possibly be hyped more than The Hold Steady was, and they were right. The only album to beat the critical praise of Almost Killed Me was their sophomore effort, 2005’s Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss). With lyrics that have often been compared to the offbeat prose of Kurt Vonnegut, the band once again found itself on the high road to alternative rock legendry.
With their music popping up in feature film soundtracks, TV commercials and the late-night TV circuit, they have become the newest band to know. Though they won’t hit the studio again for a while, noted photographer Judson Baker is currently directing a documentary of the band’s latest tour. The movie promises “. behind the scenes travels, travails, killer parties and born again performances,” according to their Web site, and judging by their rollicking live show, it will be a must-see.
Their latest tour will kick off on Feb. 1 at D.C.’s own Black Cat, so bring your beer money if you’re 21, hide your beer in a water cup if you’re not, and catch their show while they still play clubs small enough to capture their bar-rock roots.
The Hold Steady’s unique brand of bar rock is best listened to at top volume while driving at high speeds with the windows rolled down. Sure, hardly any students here have a car, so do yourself a favor – rent yourself a Zipcar and take a trip down 495. Cruising on the Metro just doesn’t have the same effect.
The Hold Steady will play at the Black Cat (1811 14th St. N.W.) Wednesday. Doors open at 8:30 p.m., and tickets cost $10.