As the Hold Steady gets ready to play its first real live shows in 20 months this weekend in Minneapolis, the band's ex-Minnesotan frontman sounds plenty confident they'll come back roaring.
"I'm not worried about us being rusty," Craig Finn said. "We've been rehearsing. We did the livestream shows. We've been doing some recording. We've been active."
He does have one sizable concern, though.
"Honestly, I'm afraid it might get a little too emotional," the Edina native said.
Talking by phone last month from Brooklyn — where he moved in 2000 following the demise of his Twin Cities band Lifter Puller — the punk-weaned storyteller said his worry has as much to do with the location of their return engagement as it does the long wait.
The sextet will perform Saturday in First Avenue's main room and then cross over into 7th St. Entry for two more shows Sunday, including an all-ages matinee set like the ones he attended as a teenager.
Long sold out, these concerts were originally booked as part of First Ave's 50th anniversary bonanza in May 2020, adding to the celebratory spirit evident anytime Finn and the Hold Steady's other Upper Midwest-reared members return to Minneapolis.
"It's 18 months late, but there's still plenty reason to celebrate," the singer said.
"I'm grateful to be back playing shows, period. And then for these first ones to be at First Avenue just dials that up a few notches. Not to sound like I'm entering the NBA finals, but I'm worried about staying focused and not being overwhelmed by it all."
Adding to Finn's excitement/anxiety, these gigs also will be the first time the band has played songs off its latest album for a live audience. "Open Door Policy" arrived in February after essentially sitting on the shelf for most of 2020.
As with all Hold Steady records, the 11-song collection is laden with vividly drawn everyday characters and Springsteen-esque guitar/piano interplay — but with noticeable differences.
Standout tracks such as "Spices," "Me & Magdalena" and "Heavy Covenant" are slower-burning and moodier than the Hold Steady's rowdier, riff-heavy material of old.
In addition to co-founding guitarist Tad Kubler's usual steady input, some of the music this time around was also co-written by guitarist Steve Selvidge (who joined in 2010) and pianist Franz Nicolay (who quit in 2010 but rejoined in 2016).
"Those two guys are pretty key to the story here," Finn said.
"When Steve came in, he was sort of tasked with approximating some of Franz's parts on guitar. Then when Franz rejoined, those two kind of had to divvy things up and figure out how they fit together — and to their credit, they really figured it out themselves.
"One of the things we all learned," he added, "is that 'bigger' doesn't necessarily mean everyone in the band playing at once. Sometimes holding back can sound just as big."
Another noticeable shift: The people Finn is writing about throughout "Open Door Policy" are older and wearier folks with menial jobs, financial problems and moral dilemmas; quite a contrast to the wild and unworried youth that permeated past Hold Steady records.
"I've always kind of had a gaze in the Hold Steady that looks back about 15 years," Finn explained of the shift. "I'm 50 now, so that kind of puts me back at 35 and sort of entering middle age.
"These characters are people that are further along in life — people with occupations, with a little money, with the problems of real life."
One might be mistaken to think the pandemic played a role in the album's relatively more downbeat tone and themes of disconnect, but the songs were all recorded with producer Josh Kaufman in 2019 before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Still, Finn said it's no mistake they came when they did.
"It seems kind of funny to say now, but 2019 felt pretty heavy at the time," he said. "There was this kind of overwhelming feeling of inequality and worrying what effect modern technology is having on information, and just a lot of people struggling.
"One of the overriding ideas on the record is people trying to escape their surroundings — which obviously took on different meaning once the pandemic hit."
The Hold Steady's members stayed busy in different ways throughout the 2020-21 quarantine. Some worked on new homes in Upstate New York, including Minneapolis-reared drummer Bobby Drake. Some upped their dad game. Nicolay and Finn did a lot of writing — the former churning out a novel ("Someone Should Pay for Your Pain," out now via Gibson House Press), and the latter finishing a solo album for release next year (Finn's fifth LP outside the band).
The singer said the sudden halt wasn't so hard on the band. It had "already scaled back and refocused" tour itineraries, with multi-night stands becoming more the norm like this one in Minneapolis and others coming up in New York and London.
"I'd be surprised if we don't see more bands following our lead now after the pandemic," he said, "because it's harder than ever to roll into Pensacola on a Monday night and make it work."
Last seen in town throwing the opening pitch for First Avenue Night at Target Field in September — "I choked, but I was still thrilled to do it," he said — Finn admitted he now feels a bit like a visiting tourist when he returns home to the Twin Cities. His immediate family has moved away in recent years, and he hasn't lived here for two decades.
Tellingly, there's only one overt lyrical reference to Minnesota on the new record, a nod to "the downtown Dayton's" in "Parade Days."
"Minneapolis will always be my hometown and always be deep in my consciousness and heart, but as I've gotten further and further removed from it, I don't know if I feel confident making those kind of references anymore," he said. "There's also a sense of I've done that before."
Conversely, he said he feels as much familiarity and love as ever for his New York band following their unexpected hiatus. Look for more shows — probably including another Twin Cities run — next year.
"I can say confidently this is the best lineup we've ever had. We're in a very good place.
"We started in 2003, so we're looking down the barrel at 20 years soon. And it feels pretty awesome where we're at spiritually. It's not only that I think we're still making good music, we're also still having a lot of fun — and I think the two are very much connected."
The Hold Steady
Sat.: 8 p.m. at At First Avenue with Gully Boys & Kiss the Tiger.
Sun.: 3:30 & 8 p.m. at 7th St. Entry.
Tickets: Sold out.