With Craig Finn
Thursday, July 2, 2015
With all due respect to the Heartless Bastards, who were technically the headliners at Trees last Thursday night, the evening thoroughly belonged to opener Craig Finn. Performing solo with a friend on electric guitar, the Hold Steady frontman took advantage of an intimate half-sized crowd, with people noisily filing in throughout, to upend audience expectations. His usual band's Thin Lizzy-via-Springsteen routine was stripped down to its bookish bones, and they proved sturdy enough to stand upright.
Maybe it was Finn's charmingly modest stage demeanor, taking the breaks between songs to provide context and remind us what we had to look forward to from the headliner, but from the quiet insistence of the first acoustic notes his set was captivating. His voice, always an acquired taste, sounded as relaxed and melodic as I've ever heard it, even while singing tunes that were mostly unfamiliar in the lead-up to the release of his second solo record, Faith in the Future, which is due in September.
The Hold Steady have been compared to John Darnielle's (less raucous) Mountain Goats by critics and fans since their earliest albums — a bit crudely, in truth. But both groups do share a penchant for words and narratives and characters richer than most songwriters care to reach for. Witnessing Finn as a solo act, the comparison wasn't crude at all; it was unavoidable, and paid a compliment to both.
"I'm gonna do some stories and some songs before the Heartless Bastards come out," he warned us needlessly, and the two categories blended pleasingly into each other as the evening wore on. Particularly at a setting like Trees, Finn was the rare live act for which the words being sung weren't drowned out by their accompaniment. Instead, they provided the substance of the experience, the texture of the art.
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As such, there were too many details to adequately report them all, as devotees of the Hold Steady's ever-literate discography well know. Even in a cherry-picked 45-minute dose, his story-songs had thematic cohesion, much like Darnielle's brand of desperation rock. Finn played one song at the start reflecting on a series of religious doubts; near the end, with the Heartless Bastards' Kevin Vaughn and Mike Lamping joining him onstage to add some rock 'n' roll heft, he prepared us to handle another one about Jesus. He wove fictions right next to biographies; I was struck by a particular Hold Steady number ("Modesto Is Not That Sweet") that made the Mountain Goats comparisons seem undeniable in a way the studio version never had.
Before wrapping things up with his final song, the recent single "Newmyer's Roof," Finn continued a pattern he had followed all night by telling us about its inspiration. Someday, with a little more distance, 9/11 anecdotes might lose some of their power, but this particular instance will probably never lose resonance: The love of his life was working at The World Trade Center and survived because she disobeyed the safety instructions — the same morning he and a friend, in dumb confusion, spent drinking mournful beers on a roof and watching the towers fall. I can't do it justice.
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That was the moment I felt bad for the folks who had the unenviable task of taking the stage next.
The Heartless Bastards didn't need my pity, though, judging by the fans of various ages who spent the night dancing and singing along to jams that became essentially interchangeable to my ears. The Bastards' formidable blues-rock sound is perfect for a certain mood — they've mastered a form and refined it over five albums. Their latest, Restless Ones (released last month), is their most subtly textured work yet, and it was reflected by a live sound well-built to capture their full force — you could feel the drums in your chest. It was the opposite of Finn's character sketches, speaking a language that didn't need phonic clarity, and I'm sure that came as a relief to some people. But the "whoa-oh-oh" choruses lost their appeal fairly quickly, though not suddenly or all that noticeably — just in the diminishing returns of repetition.
As almost every critic has noted at some point, Erika Wennerstrom has a voice worthy of great(er) songs, and she's also the Bastards' best performer.The best moments to watch in their set were two otherwise unexceptional numbers during which she set her guitar aside and grooved with her audience, arms moving in the air like a yoga teacher in the movies or some kind of monk reaching enlightenment. Thanks to Craig Finn’s story-songs, I could at least imagine something of what she felt.