Craig Finn of the Hold Steady says that one way he knows his Brooklyn-based band has reached a certain level of success is that when it plays smaller markets - as it did during an early-April trek that included stops in Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y., and Morgantown, W.Va. - people turn up.
"Just knowing that there's never really going to be a dead show - that's huge," says the frontman, who formed the group with guitarist Tad Kubler in 2004 out of the ashes of their Minneapolis post-punk outfit Lifter Puller. "That makes me feel like we're already operating at this really high standard."
Vagrant Records COO Jon Cohen agrees with Finn but sees room for growth. He thinks "Heaven Is Whenever," the Hold Steady's fifth full-length (due May 4 on Vagrant), could trigger a breakthrough along the lines of the one Phoenix experienced with last year's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix." "Like the Hold Steady, Phoenix were on a steady rise, then made an amazing record and got some important looks. ["Saturday Night Live"], then the Cadillac commercial. Things happened in succession to move the band to the next level," Cohen says. According to Nielsen SoundScan, 2008's "Stay Positive" has sold 88,000 copies, while 2006's "Boys and Girls in America" has sold 94,000.
Kubler says "Heaven Is Whenever" is "more dynamic and has more depth" than the band's past work, with a greater emphasis on guitars (due to the departure earlier this year of keyboardist Franz Nicolay). "There's a grandeur to the new songs," band manager Juan Luis Carrera says, though he adds that the album "still adheres to the band's foundation." Finn defines that foundation as "this straight rock'n'roll thing," which reflects Kubler's surging bar-band riffs if not the singer's densely allusive lyrics.
Those riffs have earned the Hold Steady new traction at radio, says Vagrant GM Dan Gill, who points to adds of lead single "Hurricane J" at WWCD Columbus, Ohio, and KBZT San Diego as evidence of the act's broadening appeal. "We've never had stations add a Hold Steady record weeks before street date," Gill says.
Another indicator that the Hold Steady is beginning to resonate beyond what Finn calls "the Pitchfork indie world": an upcoming live performance on baseball's MLB.com. "That'll put them in touch with that Replacements/Soul Asylum/Springsteen element," Gill says. "They're a bit of a working man's band." Heineken has signed the group for a partnership launching in early May that Gill says involves signage at retail outlets as well as a handful of private performances.
A dogged live act, the Hold Steady is playing several European festivals this summer, and it's scheduled to hit Sasquatch outside Seattle, Summerfest in Milwaukee and New York's Beacon Theatre for a headlining date in October. An April 30 performance on "Late Show With David Letterman" is planned, as is an appearance on "The Colbert Report" May 13.
Carrera says he would "love to see a support offer come on the table for next year." In 2009 the band opened shows for both Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows. "They love playing music, and they're not afraid to try these things," Carrera adds. "My vision for this record goes to the end of 2011. And maybe somewhere in there something like 'SNL' will happen and we'll really pick up some steam."