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Success and the road for Dave Matthews, Hold Steady

By John Benson

Thursday, June 18, 2009

By John Benson

Dave Matthews Band, always one of the biggest shows on the summer shed circuit, returns this weekend for two shows at Post-Gazette Pavilion.

DMB notched its fifth-straight No. 1 with “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” its new album dedicated to former saxophonist LeRoi “GrooGrux King” Moore, who died last summer after an ATV accident. Nielsen SoundScan reported that “Big Whiskey” sold 424,000 copies in its debut week, which is the best first week this year for anyone except U2.

Matthews and the band have now tied Metallica as the only bands to debut five-consecutive studio albums at No. 1.

This weekend’s shows at P-G Pavilion have an added attraction: opening is acclaimed indie-rock favorites The Hold Steady. It will be an interesting mix — DMB’s swinging jams and Hold Steady’s old-school riff-rock and street poetry.

For fans of The Hold Steady, the band’s recent live album and DVD documentary release, “A Positive Rage,” was a chance to get up close and personal with a group that over the past five years has been kicking out honest tales detailing (and dissecting) the American way of life.

Oh, and apparently the group, described as a new millennium Bruce Springsteen, has been drinking like The Replacements, which is why The Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler has yet to make it all the way through the 2006 tour documentary.

“It’s painful for me to watch,” said Kubler, calling from his New York City home. “I don’t drink anymore. And it’s just we were so [expletive] up all of the time. It’s funny how we tour now. It’s like we maybe have a bottle of whiskey some nights, maybe a bottle of wine and a case of beer, and that usually ends up on the bus. Back then our rider was three cases of beer, two bottles of whiskey and two bottles of wine, and we were asking for more booze before we even got on stage. It’s like it hurts to watch it.”

He added, “There was no way we could have kept up with that pace. I almost died, so I think it’s one of those things that bookends a particularly important period of the band. There are so many great parts of what was happening then with the band that I think still resonates today, but I also think it’s something that we’ve definitely evolved from.”

Formed in 2003 by Kubler and singer-guitarist Craig Finn (both of which were in alt-rock act Lifter Puller), along with bassist Galen Polivka, keyboardist Franz Nicolay and Bobby Drake (drums), The Hold Steady has been rising through the ranks with albums such as 2004’s “Almost Killed Me,” 2005’s “Separation Sunday” and 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America” each garnering critical acclaim and an increasing amount of attention from the mainstream.

That leads us to the band’s more recent studio effort, 2008’s “Stay Positive,” which upped the group’s ante for bar-band sing-along rock with notable tunes including the rousing title track and the anthemic “Sequestered in Memphis.” Just as the baby boomers had the aforementioned Springsteen to paint a vivid picture of life’s struggles and joys, there’s a feeling among The Hold Steady fans that Finn’s songwriting doesn’t necessarily provide a road map as much as detail familiar landmarks.

“The idea of ‘Stay Positive’ is somewhat serious and somewhat tongue-in-cheek,” Kubler said. “‘Stay positive’ was something that a lot of the hardcore bands from the ’80s always said. Like you had Bad Brains and the Youth Crew, all of that sort of New York-D.C. hard core from that period, and I think both Craig and I were listening to a lot of that stuff at the end of the ‘Boys and Girls in America’ tour.”

So far, the one elusive aspect to The Hold Steady’s career has been mainstream exposure and success. The former appears to be changing with the quintet spending this month opening for Dave Matthews Band in 20,000-seat outdoor venues.

The Hold Steady will not be joining Matthews at the Blossom concert in July.

While fans of The Hold Steady may question why the act hasn’t broken through to larger rock circles, the outfit isn’t complaining. In a nutshell, it appears as though the members of The Hold Steady are just, well, staying positive.

“I think we’re lucky not to have day jobs, and we’re able to really focus on playing and writing music and spending time on the road,” Kubler said. “So there certainly isn’t any kind of frustration or I don’t think we ever thought, ‘How come we’re not selling 800,000 records or how come we’re not opening for U2?’ I think we’re incredibly happy to be doing what we’re doing and to be where we are.”