Way back when John McCain and Joe Biden first considered getting into politics (and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin were worried about their sixth-grade history homework), bars and liquor stores didn’t open on Election Day—at least until after the polls closed. Plus, most people got the day off. Appropriately, neither the Hold Steady nor the Drive-By Truckers will work this November 4; instead, they’ll spend the day driving between the disconnected swing states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Their co-headlining “Rock and Roll Means Well” tour begins the night before Halloween and goes for five straight nights until that initial off day.
They hit New York City November 6 and 7. “I’m concerned about the mood of the shows the following days after Election Day,” admits Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn. “Depending on how it goes, it could be a big celebration.”
Conversely, if Finn-favored Obama somehow loses what is currently a double-digit lead, Truckers frontman Patterson Hood, who shares Finn’s political affiliation, predicts something much less jovial. “It’ll be an angry motherfucking show,” he says. “I’ll tell you that.”
Of course, anger has a place within the straight-ahead-rock-music-in-indie-clothing brashly wielded by both bands. Finn’s clenched-teeth, near-spoken-word delivery suggests a certain seething; likewise, the DBTs’ stock-in-trade is the human remainder bin of George Wallace’s South: the forgotten, the overlooked, the underclass. And things haven’t been good for those folks in a long, long time.
“This has been an eight-year frustration for me,” Hood says. “This whole watching everything that’s happened since the time that Bush took office. I really could not believe it when he got re-elected in ’04. I mean, as much as was already botched by that time, I couldn’t believe that he got another chance to take it further. And now look where we’re at, you know? It’s like, ‘Goddamn folks, wake up!’ “
During our late-September chat, with the Truckers on tour and the Hold Steady preparing for a European jaunt that never quite happens thanks to guitarist Tad Kubler’s ailing pancreas (he’s fine now, thanks), it’s possible that Hood has himself just said hello to the morning, as he’s tardy to the just-past-noon conference call. Finn, on the other hand, has been awake for hours—nothing unusual for him, he says, since his girlfriend began nursing school.
But otherwise, parallels proliferate between the two bands, one based in Brooklyn by way of Minnesota, the other with corresponding footprints in Alabama and Georgia. Both Finn and Hood are veterans; both are hovering around 40. Each is on his second major (and more successful) band: the former debuting with Lifter Puller, the latter with Adam’s House Cat, which, like the Truckers, also included fellow singer-songwriter Mike Cooley. As lyricists, Finn and Hood (and Cooley) are susceptible to narrative (though the Hold Steady seem less limited geographically, covering Minneapolis to Ybor City at least), while musically each believes in the redemptive guitar solo, a rare thing these days.
A line from Cooley’s 2003 track “Marry Me”—”Rock ‘n’ roll means well, but it can’t help tellin’ young boys lies”—provides this particular tour with its title. “I suggested it,” says Finn. “I sometimes have a rap onstage where I’ve even quoted that. You know, I say that rock ‘n’ roll is awesome, but it’s based on fantasies and lies, and sometimes there’s some small truths. But, you know, Mike Cooley might’ve said it best.”
“It’s my favorite lyric that he’s ever written,” Hood adds.
Each songwriter sees thematic similarities in their favorite song by the other guy’s band. Finn favors “Let There Be Rock,” from the Truckers’ two-disc 2001 masterpiece Southern Rock Opera, the most important album to emerge from the region since R.E.M.’s Murmur. “It sums up sort of the mystery and beauty of rock’s role, and the way it kind of works on innuendo and rumors and gossip before the Internet,” he explains. “Which is when I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll.”
“I keep having to go back to ‘Chillout Tent,’ ” says Hood, of the Hold Steady cut off 2006’s Boys & Girls in America. “That was the song that first made me fall in love with the band. I think I probably heard it played in the periphery a couple of times before I actually sat down and listened to it, and I can remember that moment in time when I realized what the song was saying, and what it was about, and what was going on. [The song details a meeting between two drug-addled kids in the medical tent at a rock festival, and the extremely brief love affair that ensues.] And I immediately threw off the needle and played it again. It’s funny, because those two songs probably have a lot of parallels. It definitely captured that same element of what it means to fall in love, you know, with rock ‘n’ roll and rock ‘n’ roll bands. That’s really what both of those songs are about.”
Hopefully, the band’s respective fan bases, intermingled as they will be for the better part of a month, share similarities, too.
“I think there’s going to be some people that are really familiar with both bands,” says Finn. “I think there’s going to be some people that are way more familiar with the Truckers, and there’s going to be some people that are way more familiar with the Hold Steady. I think the ones that are more familiar with the Hold Steady might classify as more Pitchfork-type people, and there might be more of an alt-country or Southern audience for the Truckers. There’s a huge amount of people that I see at our shows wearing Truckers T-shirts, so I know that there’s a big overlap.”
And then there’s the politics.
“You know, I don’t expect Obama or anybody else to be Superman and to have the magic pill that fixes all our problems and saves the world,” Hood says. “I just want to stop the bleeding. Touring overseas, there’s a different version of the news over there, and it’s just alarming to see how Bush makes us look. And meanwhile, Europe has readjusted themselves and their economy and kind of embraced some of the new ways of looking at things—green stuff and all of that—in a way that America has not embraced, and because of that, they’re moving into this century as, you know, the dominant force, and we’re kind of lagging behind, because we’re still worshipping at the altar of Ronald Reagan.”
Finn agrees: “I’d never traveled that much outside of the U.S. until roughly when Boys & Girls came out. It’s changed me as a person in a way. You see what’s out there and, you know, to put it really simply: In order for us to get competitive in the world, we need to act differently. And be led differently.”
Which is not to say that either musician, though rarely at a loss for words, feels comfortable pontificating from his onstage pulpit.
“It’s something that I can honestly say that the band has not talked about—our stance as a band,” Finn says. “But I know all the people within the band, and how they feel about the current administration, and what they want to happen in this election. And it isn’t something that I’ve talked a lot about from the stage, but it’s something that, as you sort of think about what you are and what you can do—I used to be really, not so much careful, but sort of against, ah, speaking out about, you know, personal views to people at a rock show.”
“Believe it or not,” adds Hood, “I’m probably more with you there than people will think, too. I mean, I’ve never really been comfortable talking or making big, grand political statements onstage at the rock show, you know. Certain things just come out, particularly in the context of certain songs. For starters, I think that everything is kind of political.”
If not politically active, Hood and Finn are at least politically attuned. “This is the first election that I’m infuriated,” Finn says. “Like, this is the first one that I’ve had nightmares about. Like, literally. So, I take this one harder. Because, I mean, I’m trying to be an adult, even though I’m in a rock band. And I have responsibilities to the people I love and whatnot. But to see how this stuff affects you and actually what it means, you know, it can actually get me angry.”
Hood, a native of the land of Wallace, says he was “a little freaky kid” watching the Watergate hearings every day after school. “There’s definitely a pretty wide spectrum politically in our audience,” he says. “Particularly in some parts of the country, it’s definitely not like you’re up there preaching to the converted. There are a lot of Republicans who really like our band, and they generally seem to know where I stand and where we stand on issues, but they come see us anyway.”
Winning, of course, will result in these two NYC shows transforming into a rock ‘n’ roll party eight years in the making. But, as Finn says, “It’s just more how we handle it if it doesn’t go our way.” So what if McCain improbably emerges victorious? Note that the Hold Steady’s new album is called Stay Positive. “It’s not like it’s just about an election,” Finn adds. “I mean, it’s not like, ‘Oh, the election’s done. Well, we lost.’ It’s not like a football game where you just go home. I think you have to give people a chance to let it out, you know. Let their frustration out.”
But are we talking about the audience, or merely the members of two politically invested bands who maintain more than a passing interest in the first Tuesday of November? “I’m talking about both,” Finn says. “In most cases, it’s going to be both. Probably start it from the stage, because we’ve got the amps and the microphones.”
The Drive-By Truckers and Hold Steady play Terminal 5 November 6 and 7