Down to Ybor City again: The return of The Hold Steady

The cult-beloved Brooklyn rock act headlines this year's Tropical Heatwave.

click to enlarge Down to Ybor City again: The return of The Hold Steady - Danny Clinch
Danny Clinch
Down to Ybor City again: The return of The Hold Steady

When Hold Steady vocalist Craig Finn wrote the lines “Ybor City is tres speedy / but they throw such killer parties” and “Well, hold steady, Ybor City / You’re up to your neck in the sweat and wet confetti” — from the songs “Killer Parties” and “Most People Are DJs,” respectively, both on the group’s 2004 debut Almost Killed Me — he hadn’t yet visited Tampa’s notorious party district.

“I asked Craig early on, ‘Where the fuck is Ybor City?’” says guitarist Tad Kubler. “And he’s like, ‘It’s in Tampa, it’s kind of the sketchy part of Tampa … I just like the way it sounds.’”'

Back then, Ybor was still shrugging off its “sketchy” reputation as a still-dangerous, in-transition haven for punk clubs and artists’ lofts. And nobody knew a damned thing about The Hold Steady, a unique rock band the two musicians built after the demise of their previous group, Lifter Puller, on the foundation of Finn's detailed spoken-sung lyrical narratives and Kubler's hooky, anthemic guitar work.

By the time the lines "Don’t tell the hangers on, don’t tell your friends / Don’t tell them we went down to Ybor City again” appeared in “Slapped Actress” on the group’s fourth studio album, 2008’s Stay Positive, all the cool kids knew about the band. The Hold Steady had played Ybor a couple of times, and its apocryphal perspective of the neighborhood was inextricably entwined with the band’s tangled mythology (along with many other locations, including New Jersey, the Mississippi River and the band’s original hometown of Minneapolis).

“My impression is, people just love to party down there,” says Kubler. “That’s what it’s always felt like for me. And it’s in Florida, the weather’s nice. We’ve always had a blast down there. And now that we have friends from Tampa, it’s even more fun, you know?”

These days, The Hold Steady is one of the best-known of a handful of truly alternative rock ‘n’ roll bands to emerge in the post-Warped Tour era. The group packed nine shows (?!) into less than a week at this year’s South By Southwest festival in Austin, and its excellent new album Teeth Dreams — the first featuring studio contributions by newest member (and former Lucero guitarist) Steve Selvidge — is being hailed as a bold and successful departure for the band, though Kubler sees it as simply the latest chapter in the band’s continuing evolution.

“I definitely feel that’s accurate,” he says. “Our goal has always been to try to become more musical. I don’t see it as a huge departure. It’s just kind of a natural progression of us writing songs and making music … I’m not totally sure what people are hearing, but if they like it, God bless ’em.”

Kubler is on the phone from the U.K., where he and his bandmates are augmenting sold-out shows with side trips for radio interviews and acoustic performances on the Continent. On May 9, they play Brighton, England before getting on a plane that night to fly into Tampa to headline Tropical Heatwave the following evening. It’s a long-overdue appointment for a group that made Ybor nightlife a memorable part of its character long before it had ever seen the place.

“I feel like it’s sort of the chicken and the egg thing for us, it’s sort of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Kubler muses. “Because Craig has name-checked it a bunch, we’ve created this mythical relationship with it, and people go nuts.” 

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