“There’s no real explanation.”
Craig Finn had to resort to that kind of non-answer answer a few times during his latest interview with the hometown newspaper. Those unspecific replies would’ve been frustrating, but his band the Hold Steady was already due to respond to the queries in the best way possible this weekend.
After a four-year lull since their last local gig at Midway Stadium opening for the Replacements — “kind of a hard one to follow,” Finn noted — he and the group are making up for lost time with three Minneapolis shows over two days, including a pair in one of Minnesota’s most venerable music rooms.
Why it took so long to return to town was one of the questions he could not properly spell out.
“Every time we’ve gotten together to play shows again since 2016, it always seemed imminent that another Twin Cities date would be just around the bend,” Finn said by phone two weeks ago from New York, where the Hold Steady is based. “But for whatever reason, nothing ever lined up.”
One simple reason: The band went on hiatus for more than a year and has yet to return to full-scale touring. Another problem, Finn noted, was the fact that his crew often tries to “find some new excuse or venue to play” when it comes to the Twin Cities. During the Hold Steady’s steadily ascendant 15-year run, it has played Rock the Garden, the Basilica Block Party, Minnesota Zoo’s amphitheater, Cabooze Plaza, the Triple Rock, State Theatre and, of course, First Avenue.
Now, the group can add SurlyFest to the list. It will headline Saturday’s big Oktoberfest-style celebration outside the Surly brewery in Minneapolis, topping a six-act lineup that also includes brooding indie-pop faves Bad Bad Hats and hot-headed hip-hop trio Mixed Blood Majority.
“You have to have a certain amount of resiliency as a band to book an outdoor gig in Minnesota in mid-October,” Finn wryly noted.
Surprisingly, the long list of local sites to host Hold Steady tour dates over the years does not include 7th St. Entry, where the band will play two additional sets Sunday, including an all-ages afternoon show. Both gigs sold out faster than fans can list all the Twin Cities malls past and present name-checked in Finn’s songs.
The frontman also could not easily explain how the band stepped over the small club that’s been a steppingstone venue for nearly every indie-rock band of the past 37 years.
“It stands out as the one big glaring omission in our history there,” he said, harking back to the group’s Twin Cities debut in 2004, four years after he moved to New York.
“We did our first shows at the Triple Rock, because it was new and we wanted to support them. And then by the time we came around for [2005’s] ‘Separation Sunday,’ we were lucky enough to already be in the main room. But we probably should’ve fit it in there somewhere.”
At least the Hold Steady’s members have all played the Entry with prior bands, including Lifter Puller (both Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler), End Transmission (Minneapolis-reared drummer Bobby Drake) and Lucero (guitarist Steve Selvidge).
Without that history, Finn conceded, playing the room may not seem as special for his non-Minnesotan bandmates as it is for him. The Edina native frequented all-ages matinee shows there in his teen years, including release parties for both the Replacements’ “Tim” and Soul Asylum’s “Made to Be Broken.”
“It generally doesn’t smell all that good in there, and it’s hard to get to the bar if you want a drink,” he said. “But it’s just a great rock ’n’ roll room. We all know that.”
While it may seem counterintuitive for a veteran band to go back to play a venue frequented by baby bands, Finn said the Entry gigs actually fit well with the Hold Steady’s status as “a band that’s put in a lot of miles.”
They’ve played similar offshoot gigs in other cities, such as a show at the Empty Bottle in Chicago last month after headlining Goose Island Beer Company’s block party. It’s a way for them to play more sets without having to put in more road time, a greater concern now that three of the band’s six current members have children.
“An older band like us can get away with settling into one city for multiple nights,” Finn said.
“For one thing, we have enough of a discography now. This is a good way to go deeper with the set lists and mix and match more. And we can also build more of a community around shows like these, maybe make more of an event of them. Hold Steady fans from all over can fly or drive into the city and stay a few nights. I think it becomes more fun for them, too.”
Plus, he said, “after 15 years, you learn which cities are your strongholds and which ones just never seem to get any bigger. You can only knock on the door of certain cities so many times before you wonder, ‘Do we really need to play here every year?’ ”
The Hold Steady has similarly taken a more limited, selective approach to recording.
Rather than working on the followup to their last album, 2014’s “Teeth Dreams,” the group has dropped a series of two-song, 7-inch/digital singles over the past year. The selections included another fine ode to rock ’n’ roll problems, “Star 18,” and a pairing issued last month with the horn-tinged bouncers “Confusion in the Marketplace” and “T-Shirt Tux.”
“A lot of the bands we love did singles like this, like the Smiths, the Clash, the Beatles,” Finn said. “It sort of takes the pressure off of having to put out a whole album and then doing a whole big tour. Plus, it’s probably more in line with where technology is at these days.”
Still plainly an album-centric kind of band, though, the Hold Steady actually came back from hiatus in December 2016 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its second-best LP, “Boys & Girls in America.” That’s when the group turned into a six-piece unit, with pianist Franz Nicolay rejoining after quitting the band in 2010, which is when Selvidge joined as a second lead guitarist.
“As we got ready for the ‘Boys & Girls in America’ shows, we realized there’s really a lot of piano on those songs, and it wouldn’t be right without them,” Finn recalled.
“Franz was the first guy we called, of course. He said yes, we had a lot of fun, and we just wanted to keep that going. At the same time, Steve had become such an integral part of the band, musically and spiritually. So here we are: a six-piece band.”
And how does the expanded version stack up to prior incarnations? At least that one was easily answered.
“Honestly, I can say this is unequivocally the best lineup ever for the Hold Steady,” he said.
The Hold Steady
SurlyFest: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat., Surly Brewing, 520 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls., $40, eTix.com.
7th St. Entry: 4 and 9 p.m. Sun., sold out.