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Of all the lapsed and unlapsed Catholics rocking or being rocked at Austin's South by Southwest music industry conference in March, Irish Boston College grad Craig Finn may be the only one giving St. Patrick's Day the gas face. No green beer, no "Kiss Me, I'm in Sinn Fein" button, just a big plate of barbecue and endless refills of iced tea. It seems a shame that he's not living it up every second, because Separation Sunday, which his excellent Brooklyn band the Hold Steady releases this week, is an early contender for record of the year. Drawing on Springsteen's triumphalist trad-rock the way indie rockers used to revise Hüsker Dü's negative creep, Separation has epic sweep, wiseacre charm, and riffs to spare.
But Finn ain't having it. "I hate St. Patrick's Day," the 33-year-old says. "Being Irish just doesn't have anything to do with anything. But my Catholicism is a big part of everything I do." No kidding: Separation Sunday is the most egregiously American Catholic album since X's Under the Big Black Sun, Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, or that Jewish new waver Billy Joel's The Stranger. (And the latter two are clearly huge with Finn.)
In fact, a month later, it seems imperative I ask him about Pope John Paul II. Finn laughs. "I saw one of those magazines that you get in the subway," he says. "And there was a poll in it: Should the late pope be declared a saint? And one guy who answered was this 18-year-old kid who said, 'No, he didn't really do anything.' I'm like, 'You know, I'm sure you got some sweet stuff going on in the dorm room up there, but . . . ' " He trails off.
On the bloody Sunday, Catholic girls start much too early, falling in with dudes who are druggy and ugly, vanishing from C.C.D. classes and reappearing months later, ready to tell the punk faithful and their priests how a resurrection really feels. "I think Catholic iconography is a cliché in punk," he adds. "The candles, the tapestries, all that Jane's Addiction/Santeria stuff. But so much of the ritual is still with me. Those Jesuits could just blow your mind."
Finn didn't start his first real band, the semi-legendary Minneapolis math-punk quartet Lifter Puller, until after having his mind blown at B.C. Lifter Puller, which blended the same sorts of lyrical concerns with more scene-specific indie burn, burned out in 2000, after which bandmate Tad Kubler and Finn split for Brooklyn and started over.
Lifter Puller were little more than regional critics' darlings, but that was enough to get the buzz rolling for the Hold Steady. For much of the audience, seeing them at their first SXSW appearance in 2004 had a Saul-to-Damascus quality. Booked into a small goth club called Elysium, Finn flailed around the stage, clapping his hands randomly, hitting his Telecaster now and then, shouting his wildly funny and complicated lyrics off-mic and pushing his glasses up every three seconds. The band churned something that wasn't quite classic rock, but bore no trace of monthly-flavor influences.
Oh yeah, the band. Guitarist Tad Kubler, drummer Bobby Drake, bassist Galen Polivka, and keyboard player Franz Nicolay are all chowing down as well. They seem to embody the same sort of indie-rocker-dorkus just-folksism that Finn does. An animated Kubler talks about how he used to race BMX bikes in his youth. Polivka examines a cut that he poured glue into earlier in the day, another rock myth that they've managed to embody. Nicolay is bemoaning his bandmates' fondness for schnapps. "That stuff is from the bar shelf of Dr. Moreau," he wails.
Frankly, some folks just hate these guys. After this year's SXSW, at which the Hold Steady played four shows in 48 hours, noted sports blogger Gerard Cosloy described a band he refused to name as "later-period Soul Asylum fronted by Charles Nelson Reilly." But the band's 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, was a sleeper critical smash, winding up on enough year-end lists to finish 31st in Pazz & Jop. "It was like being nominated for an Oscar or something," Finn says.
But wait a minute: Billy fucking Joel? Appropriately, there's a schism in this indie band over the man who may or may not have started the fire. "Tad and I are pro-Billy Joel, Franz and Galen are anti-Joel." Polivka rolls his eyes and reaches for the hot sauce. "Hey, he just went back into rehab," Kubler says. "He's living the rock lifestyle."
Nicolay sighs. "Joel is the piano player's cross to bear," he says. "I've actually played at an Italian restaurant in New York. It's very, very depressing. There's nothing romantic about it."
This is the tension that exists in the space between rumor and fact, between building romantic notions of punk and deflating them into bar rock. The way Springsteen took '50s rock mythology, Spector-esque sound-walls, and Dylan's visionary ramble and distilled it into rock 'n' roll future, Finn's hyper-nasal whine takes the lore and urban sagas that build up around the punk scene and turns them into, well, "Born to Run." (Like he says: "Tramps like us/and we like tramps.") The Hold Steady are post-punk in the most literal way: Having lived the all-ages life, the band provides its legends in a rock 'n' vox populi.