Craig Finn performs like he’s caught in a spasm. Offstage, the balding, bespectacled lead singer of the Hold Steady could be a Saturday-afternoon dad or an accountant at happy hour. But once the lights go up, he’s a conduit for the music, letting every lyric and riff move him to stomp and flail and swing his mic stand wildly. Even amid that physicality, it’s hard to focus on anything but Finn’s lips. They move incessantly — even off-mic — like he has Tourette’s and can’t control them.
Within that mania, Finn somehow manages a declamatory vocal tone, speak-singing conversationally and intently, like he’s telling a story he really, really wants his audience to hear. Last December at Sticky Fingerz, at the band’s first show in Arkansas, that wasn’t an issue for at least half of the crowd, who knew every word by heart and couldn’t help themselves from shouting along.
The Hold Steady might be the best live rock ’n’ roll band in the country. Formed from the ashes of Minneapolis indie-rockers Lifter Puller, it first emerged in 2000 as a joke. Finn and Tad Kubler, who together formed the core of Lifter Puller, joined friends to play AC/DC and Thin Lizzy covers to augment a comedy troupe. But with the electro-punk movement dominating indie music of the day, a distillation of all the best parts of classic rock was, as Finn has said, so “uncool it was cool.”
A hearty helping of chunky Led Zeppelin riffs goes pretty far, but it’s Finn’s skewed barroom poetry that has propelled the Hold Steady into a full-on critical embrace. Finn writes songs with sweeping narratives, populated by characters looking for salvation who usually find sin instead. Three, in particular, pop up on each of the band’s three albums. Holly (short for Hallelujah) is a religion-addled occasional junkie and prostitute; Charlemagne is a pimp who’s always running scams; and Gideon is down for whatever.
On “Separation Sunday,” the band’s best album, Finn delves deep into his religious obsession. On the song “The Cattle and the Creeping Things” (a reference to a line in the opening chapters of Genesis), Holly and Charlemagne catch-up with each other, confusing their anecdotes with the Old Testament. As Charlemagne, Finn sings, “I got thru the part about the exodus. Up to then I only knew it was a movement of the people. But if small town cops are like swarms of flies and blackened foil is like boils and hail. Then I’m pretty sure we’ve been through this before. And it seemed like a simple place to score…”
Finn’s lyrics are funny and deliriously allusive, but his real gift (and a Springsteenian one at that) is mining the specific until it resonates universally. He’s obsessed with that eternal theme of rock ’n’ roll — the teenage years — and the band’s latest album, “Boys and Girls in America,” has a fair share of nostalgic gems about reckless youth. Maybe the best, “Massive Nights,” finds Finn singing about prom, “We kissed in your car and drank from your purse/I had my mouth on her nose when the chaperone said we were dancing too close.”
Come raise a glass and sing along at Sticky Fingerz on Monday, June 11, at 8 p.m. Dreamy alt-pop band Illinois opens. Tickets are $15.