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Inside Littleton High School's gymnasium, Craig Finn looks enchanted as he admires a wall-sized collage containing lyrical bits and photo interpretations of his songs. The elaborate montage was assembled by a group of ninth-graders who've spent the past few months studying Finn's New York-based outfit, the Hold Steady.
In awe that a group of kids halfway across the country have taken such an interest in his band, Finn continues to survey their work in disbelief. "This is really incredible," he declares. "It's probably the most flattering thing that has happened to this band. And it's exciting for me. I've always wanted people to be able to, with multiple listens, uncover new things. NPR did a piece on us and did a lot research on the lyrics. I even learned stuff about my songs."
That NPR segment is the reason Finn and his bandmates -- guitarist Tad Kubler, drummer Bobby Drake, bassist Galen Polivka and keyboardist Franz Nicolay -- are in Littleton this sunny Tuesday afternoon in late October. Teacher Thom Uhlcaught the piece on the radio a few months ago and was so enthralled by the story line of Separation Sunday -- the act's sophomore disc that follows a Catholic school girl named Hallelujah as she falls in with burnouts and struggles to find redemption -- that he immediately contacted the band with an invitation to give a private acoustic performance at the school.
"We have this thing called 'Mental Health Monday,'" Uhl explains. "Rather than doing geography on that Monday, we kind of changed it to where we do teen issues. So I was just driving home and listening to this band and listening to the story. I was really impressed with the story -- a whole concept album on teens and teen issues, and the music doesn't suck, and it doesn't sound pretentious and cliched. I thought that this would be perfect."
Uhl ended up crafting an extensive curriculum centered on the band. In addition to poring over the lyrics, students were tasked with tracking the group's tour across the country and calculating how long it would take to get from place to place. If that sounds like progressive thinking, it is. Uhl, who teaches ninth-grade language arts and geography, is one of four instructors in the school's Freshman Academy, a special program started by Dr. Tim Westerberg that's geared toward helping at-risk students make a smooth transition from middle school to high school. Before coming to Littleton, Uhl spent nearly a decade teaching underprivileged students for Teach for America and at a wilderness camp for troubled boys. Those experiences taught him to think out of the box, a technique he brought with him to the Freshman Academy.
"One of the hardest things to do is to get the kids to understand what allusions are in literature," Uhl notes. "And Craig's lyrics are just full of allusions. It's safe to say that now our kids know what allusions are."
They also know cool when they see it. Mr. Thom, as the kids call him, has dark shoulder-length hair and a wispy goatee; he's wearing faded blue jeans, and an untucked button-down peeks out from under his V-neck sweater. He and Finn look like they could easily switch jobs. Slightly balding and clad in an oversized thrift-store sport coat and black plastic specs, the singer resembles Brian Posehn conjuring Elvis Costello. Getting the kids to buy into Finn and his crew was a tough sell at first.
"I remember when we played the first song, kids didn't like it," Uhl says with a laugh. "They were like, 'Craig Finn's voice sucks.' So we talked about it: Does it fit for what he's doing and within the whole genre and so forth? It was so fun to watch them transition from hating the first song to at least one song or two songs hitting every kid in one way or another. From 2,500 miles away, these guys are touching lives like they would not believe."
But Finn's well aware of the impact he's having. When he was growing up in suburban Minneapolis, music was his salvation. "I think all of us would agree that rock and roll played a really positive role in our teenage years," he says. "It's usually portrayed as a negative thing -- drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and black leather jackets -- but when I was this age, rock and roll was something that was important to me in a positive way.
"I was really quiet and really studious," he continues, "and I was in a really bad situation in junior high school, because that wasn't cool. It was kind of oppressive and scary, being picked on and all that. So I definitely relate to being miserable and scared. I wish that all these kids could know that it's all going to be okay. I was the biggest geek, and now I'm in a rock band."
And a hell of a band it is. The Hold Steady is one of the best-regarded indie-rock acts to emerge in years. Finn describes his group as a bar band, first and foremost, and he's right. The songs are bare-bones, meat-and-potatoes rock that wouldn't sound out of place between Born to Run and Night Movesin the disc changer. What sets this band apart is Finn's compelling narratives and his Beat-poet delivery, often masked by screaming guitars. Drained of all their ballast in an acoustic setting, though, the songs rely on Finn's raspy voice, which sounds like a detuned composite of Tom Waits, Joe Cocker and John Hiatt, and the performance seems more like a poetry reading set to music than a rock show.
But Uhl was right: The kids got used to Finn's vocal style. And now, when the band launches into "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," the first of a dozen tunes it will deliver over the course of an hour (one will be played live for the first time), they hang on to every word.
For Finn, a guy whose songs are birthed from daily twenty-minute, stream-of-consciousness writing sessions, this audience is just the kind to get the lines he penned for "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night," the second song in the set: "We mix our own mythologies/We push them out through PA systems/We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen/I'm not saying we could save you, but we could put you in a place where you could save yourself/If you don't get born again, at least you'll get high as hell."
That's a metaphor, right, Mr. Thom?