In the 2000s, the Hold Steady developed a rabid fanbase and a reputation as the best bar band in America — even though they graduated from playing bars early in their career and opened for the Stones in 2007. The band's songs worked sly updates on classic rock, mixing huge riffs and shout-along choruses. Singer Craig Finn's spluttered and often hilarious lyrics chronicle the lives of hard-drugging rock & rollers and damaged young persons tramps seeking salvation, religious or otherwise.
Finn, guitarist Tad Kubler and bassist Galen Polivka formed the Hold Steady in Brooklyn in 2002 after Finn and Kubler had built an underground following in the Minneapolis indie outfit Lifter Puller. They recruited drummer Judd Counsell to fill out the lineup. After a year of gigging throughout the East Coast, they released their first record, Almost Killed Me in 2004 on Frenchkiss Records. The record was a hit with critics, appearing on a number of year-end best-of lists.
Counsell left the Hold Steady in 2005 and was replaced by Bobby Drake, and the band added keyboardist Franz Nicolay that same year. Their second record, the concept album Separation Sunday, picked up where Almost Killed Me left off. Separation Sunday follows girl-gone-wrong Hallelujah (Holly for short) and the battle between her Catholic faith and hard-partying rock lifestyle.
The Hold Steady signed with Vagrant Records before the release of their third LP, Boys and Girls in America (Number 124, 2006), which featured bigger, shinier production. The album broke into the Billboard 200 and garnered the band some mainstream attention, including an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Throughout 2007, the band, who put on one of the best live shows in rock, toured constantly. Longtime Minnesota Twins fans, they also recorded a lilting rock version a "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" for use during the seventh-inning stretch of Twins games and covered Bob Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" for the soundtrack to the 2007 Dylan biopic I'm Not there.
2008's Stay Positive saw the band augmenting their sound with harpsichord and other new sounds, and Finn, who took singing lessons while recording the album, delivered some of his catchiest tunes yet. Stay Positive reached Number 30 and was almost universally praised by critics.
In late 2009, Nicolay released his full-length solo debut, Major General. He announced in January 2010 that he was leaving the Hold Steady during the recording of their fifth album to focus on his solo career and other collaborations.