I'm Pretty Sure We Partied: My Afternoon on The Hold Steady's Tour Bus

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It was a warm, uncharacteristically muggy August evening in the deep generica heart of Orange County, California. I adjusted the 12-pack under my arm, hoisted a bag of loose bottles and took a deep breath. I’d been waiting for this for half a year—visualizing how it would go down and playing through a thousand imaginary conversations in my head. It was my birthday, and I was about to meet my favorite band.

“Be cool. Don’t geek out.” I told myself for the millionth time as the door to the 40-foot coach swung open. Ric, The Hold Steady’s road manager, announced my arrival to the band, and I ascended the steep steps and slipped passed the half-drawn curtain into the forward lounge of the tour bus where the middle-aged rockers sipped on Mexican beers and fiddled with their iPhones.

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I got bored when I didn’t have a band / And so I started a band, man

The band—a group of Midwesterners that formed a decade ago in Brooklyn—released its sixth studio album in March 2014, the first after an uncharacteristic four-year hiatus. Teeth Dreams (Razor & Tie) has been called a “return to form” for the band, and many critics have credited the addition of Memphis-born guitarman Steve Selvidge as the spark that rekindled the energy at the heart of The Hold Steady.

This energy has won the band a fervent network of fans who turn out to share in the rock ‘n’ roll communion that is a Hold Steady show. A particularly dedicated subset of these fans self-organized—first through postings to Internet message boards, and now through the more mainstream social networks—into a loose collection known as “The Unified Scene” where members arrange pre-show meet-ups, rideshares and crash pads.

When early scene leader “Jersey Mike” Van Jura, a blogger and booking agent from Pennsylvania, died in 2012, the news spread through the fan community quickly. The Hold Steady frontman and lyricist Craig Finn said the band immediately felt the need to throw “a hastily assembled benefit show” for their fan-turned-friend. This idea evolved into the band recording an EP of covers that would benefit Van Jura’s young family, which the band decided to crowd-fund through PledgeMusic. The campaign, which nearly tripled its goal, gave fans the chance for some unprecedented opportunities to reward their support. In addition to shirts, autographs and special-edition vinyl, the band offered a selection of experiences like getting a haircut from founding guitarist Tad Kubler, a three-mile run with Finn or a tour of Memphis from Selvidge.

The perk that I could not resist was the chance to hang out with the band over a six-pack. I ponied up the two-and-a-half bills (utterly reasonable, but a veritable fortune for a freelance writer) for the Six Pack Hang, and tried to cage my expectations.

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We mix our own mythologies, / we push them out through PA systems

Before hitting the road on the Nights Go On Forever Tour, the band members re-upped their exposure in social media, and they held Twitter Q&As and a Reddit AMA. It was obvious that the band saw value in connecting with its fans in a virtual space alongside the intense connections they forge with the audience while on stage.

Finn calls “Positive Jam,” the first track on The Hold Steady’s first album, a “thesis statement” for the band. The song lays out one of the band’s founding principles: that The Hold Steady is more than the five guys up on stage; it’s everyone at the shows. Everyone who finds solace, excitement or support in the music—everyone who wants to be a part of what the band is about—is Hold Steady too. Even as the albums have gotten heavier and darker, as the music’s focus has shifted from the buzz at the beginning of the party to the hollowness of the morning after, the band is first about inclusiveness. The musicians hope their music will bring disparate souls into one room to share in that frenetic energy. You don’t just watch a Hold Steady show; you experience one as a part of the show.

The title track from 2010’s Stay Positive album—an album that shifted from the anthemic party vibes of the first three LPs to a more self-aware and gloomy feel— references the band’s thesis when Finn extols the fans:

Cause it’s one thing to start it with a positive jam
And it’s another thing to see it all through
And we couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you

Finn will draw those bars out with repetitions of “and you, and you” as he points into the crowd, high-fives with abandon and generally whips the crowd into a roiling wave.

Now, I was boarding the band’s mobile sanctuary from the rigors of touring life (“sleeping on the bus is great. Having your own space [on tour] is restorative,“ Finn later told me), and I was at once excited for the opportunity and anxious over how the reality might differ from my idealized vision.

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We’re dust in the spotlights, we’re just kind of floating

On the bus, I found a spot on one of the bench seats opposite the dinette table on driver’s side and passed out some of the brews I’d brought along to share (329 Lager from L.A.’s Golden Road Brewing and Solidarity from Eagle Rock Brewing). At first, the chatter centered around beer: everyone’s favorite (and least favorite) cheap regional beers (MGD was a surprise favorite, while Hamms was universally derided), stories of lost keg taps and purloined cases from youths misspent, and why IPAs are so damn popular.

Conversation flowed easily, and my anxiety about the event was quickly quelled by the band’s affable nature. They joked about their worst experience on a Greyhound bus and tried to organize a birthday party (a “rock and roll rager at a Benihana”) for a friend they called “Steakhouse” (everyone has a nickname, it seemed).

Kubler busied himself by cutting up an apple while drummer Bobby Drake showed off the under-construction patio addition at the bar he co-owns in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “Did you hear that Hulk Hogan died?” Finn interjected, incredulous. “At least that’s what some guy on Twitter said. Maybe it’s a prank.” Kubler passed around a sodden paper plate of apple slices, and out came the iPhones as we tried to validate the death of the Hulkster. (It was, indeed, just a baffling attempt to troll Twitter.) Then one of the moments that I’d often fantasized about in the weeks leading up to the hangout began to unfold.

“I guess we should make the setlist,” Finn said to his band members before asking me, “Have any requests?”

I, of course, had a whole list of requests that I could have rattled off. Instead I told a touching (I hoped) anecdote about my mother’s love for the band and how she’d often asked me to take her to a Hold Steady show—though she’d died before I ever did.

“Her favorite song—and mine, too,” I told them, wrapping up my story, “was ‘Lord I’m Discouraged.’”

Finn looked at Kuber, and Kubler looked at me.

“Want to drive to Vegas?” he asked me before explaining that his storied cherry red double-neck Gibson guitar—an instrument essential for the song’s arrangement—had been sent ahead for the show later that weekend.

“We’ve rehearsed it with two guitars,” Kubler said, and I could see him trying to work out the logistics in his mind.

“We could probably make it sound pretty good,” Finn said, seemingly encouraging Kuber to go out on that particular limb.

Kubler and Selvidge exchanged looks, and I suddenly felt awkward and presumptuous. I told them not to worry about it, that I certainly didn’t want them to play a song they were uncomfortable with on my account. They seemed relieved, and the rest of the set came together quickly.

The road manager had said that I could “hang for about half an hour” before the band would have to go get their pre-show dinner. Thirty minutes had turned to 45, which swung into an hour; I expected the hangout to end any minute. Kubler was first off the bus for dinner, followed closely by Drake and Selvidge. Amenable bassist Galen Polivka stuck around for a bit to talk beer before he too said his farewell and left me alone with Craig Finn. I gathered myself to leave when Finn said, “I can’t eat this close to a show; I’m just going to have another beer,” before he held the nearly empty 12-pack box out to me. “Want another?”

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Hey barroom, hey tavern / I find hope in all the souls you gather

Music writers toss around a lot of superlatives when writing about Finn and the narratives he weaves into songs—lyrics dense with literary references and rock ‘n’ roll in-jokes and tinged by his Catholic faith. I’ve savored decoding those lyrics and piecing together the non-linear narrative since discovering the band in 2005, and now I was one-on-one with the mind that penned them.

I resisted asking Finn about his lyrics, and about the connections between all the characters marbled through The Hold Steady’s catalog, and the stories of their sometimes triumphs but mostly tribulations. I knew Finn doesn’t like commenting on the meaning of his words (preferring to let the listener draw their own conclusions) and that he likes delving into the geeky minutia of his lyrical fiction even less. Instead, we talked about the nature of rock and roll, the wisdom that seems to accrete with age, and about writing. I asked him if he writes while on tour (“Just ideas, mostly,” he said), and we compared our individual processes. He asked me how I got started writing about beer, and that’s when I geeked out (just a little bit).

In Finn’s famed stage banter, he often brings up rock ‘n’ roll’s importance and its power to bring people together. “There are a lot of ways you could have stayed home tonight,” he’ll say. “Thank you for being a part of this.” I brought this up and told Finn that I believe beer shares a similar power, that the best aspects of beer culture are those that revolve around the taproom or the bars. Sure, you can talk about beer on the internet (I even try to make a living at it) or rate and review beers, or you can go out into the world to the breweries to share the beer with the people who are pouring their passion into making it. This is where the power lies.

Finn nodded in agreement, saying that as powerful and important social media is for building a following and selling tickets to shows, it’s the connections with the audience he makes while on stage—and the connections he witnesses among members in the crowd—that leave an impression on him. I feel like we shared a moment, one of those brief bonds that humans experience when talking face-to-face. It was more than I ever could have hoped to experience—not a fan and a rockstar, or a journalist and his subject, but a real moment between two people. Maybe it was the glow from the brews, or maybe Finn is just that charismatic and it was illusion, but it felt real. Two guys on a bus, drinking beers and talking shop.

My experience on the bus demonstrated beer’s power to bring people together. Beer is a common ground that dismantles the walls of anonymity that we seem all too eager to erect around us in modern society. I’d stepped into the Hold Steady’s world that afternoon an anonymous fan, but bringing and sharing beers led to genuine conversations and personal connections.

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Sing, sing, sing every song we know / Blowing out the speakers on your stereo

As the band filed back onto the bus after their dinner, I could see fans beginning to accumulate around the venue through the bus’s deeply tinted windows; it was time to leave. I thanked everyone for the incredible experience. My head was spinning a bit—I was buzzing more from the revelatory experience than from the beers. I’d shared some time and space with artists whom I greatly admire, and I was breathless with whatever it is you call the sensation of anticipation melting into satisfaction.

I floated into the venue, found my wife at the bar and hastily downed a Stone IPA while trying to process the past couple of hours. I’d taken no pictures, asked for no autographs. My voice recorder had never left my reporter’s bag. What few notes I did take were hastily scribbled and utterly nonsensical (except for Finn’s book recommendation of Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island).

I walked away from that show with not only a deeper understanding of what The Hold Steady was about, but the behind-the-scene experience had also affirmed the power of music to create a primal—spiritual, even—connection. To bring strangers into a room together to share in energy and positivity and good times, and to leave as not-quite strangers or maybe even as friends.

Since making my initial pledge in the crowd-sourcing campaign, I’d wondered if I should write about the experience. I knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was unsure if I’d get more value from the experience approaching it like I normally would a journalistic interview (with an open notebook and a digital recorder and pointed questions), or if I’d be better served by putting away the notebook and trying to just be in the moment. The guys certainly seemed more comfortable just hanging out—they didn’t have to be “on” for a journalist before the show. Just hanging out and drinking some beers and having an organic conversation with no goals or direction gave me a better perspective on who the five guys were and what they wanted out of playing in a band than reading a dozen feature interviews during my research had provided.

I’d had to concentrate on not letting my expectations for the experience grow too much, and I’d pushed darker fears that the experience would end up disillusioning— that some mystique would be lost with the new familiarity. Those anxieties were unfounded, and the experience surpassed my every expectation.

As much as I wish I had asked them all the questions I’d prepared, that I’d left the bus with a full audio recording and notes on the conversion (to say nothing of a couple of pictures with the band), I know that brandishing those tools of my trade during the hangout would have irreversibly altered the flow of the conversation and acted as a barrier to the connections that I did make with Drake, Polivka, Selvidge, Kubler and Finn. Instead, I had peered behind the curtain and glimpsed figures who I’ve only known from albums, videos, interviews and rock shows, seen the bodies at rest instead of in perpetual motion on stage, and shared some brews with artists who’ve worked hard to forge a bond to their fans through their music.

The show that night was a blur, but it was a colorful and vivid blur that I won’t soon forget. The details don’t matter as much as the feelings do, and in the weeks since I’ve often reflected on how remarkable it all was. And now even old, tired songs that I’ve heard thousands of times before have a new hue and are captivating again.

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