Craig Finn brought the last piece of his solo trilogy with his backing band The Uptown Controllers to the Fine Line on a soft, early summer Saturday night. This is a show I’ve had highlighted on my calendar for awhile. No doubt curiosity played a big part in the anticipation.
Long Island native and Finn friend Laura Stevenson opened the evening with a quiet, introspective solo set. She confessed some trepidation early on by acknowledging she was planning to be quiet on a Saturday night. Worried the natives might get a bit antsy. No cause for concern. The Fine Line crowd welcomed her with open arms and attentive ears. Had we known then what Finn would be doing, we would have known precisely why she was a perfect fit.
I’m always a bit curious why a particular opening artist tours with a headliner. Sometimes it’s label related. Sometimes it’s a friendship choice. On one level, I’m sure it was that New York friendship. However, I also believe there was some kind of songwriter respect of pedigree involved. Finn is nothing if not literary; he has always had a tremendous appreciation for the best written songs. Stevenson’s grandfather penned the Christmas classics Little Drummer Boy and Do You Hear What I Hear. Her grandmother also sang in Benny Goodman’s band. So the talent to create a song and ability to walk on stage and entertain an audience comes naturally.
Finn hit the stage right on schedule at 9 pm to a warm ovation. This is home turf. Despite the fact he’s lived the last decade plus in New York City, we still claim him. Those roots remain deep. You continue to hear it in his lyrics and love of local sports teams. Every lyric that referenced a local scene brought a cheer. Each mention of the streaking Twins, a small ovation. However, if anybody walked in expecting a blast of The Hold Steady, they haven’t been paying attention. This crowd was not in the dark when it came to anticipating what he would deliver.
I don’t know if Finn set out to construct a trilogy when he engaged in this side project four or five years ago. But I Need A New War seems like a logical capstone to an interesting journey. Certainly, it is the quietest, and many ways the most spare, of the three. The songs from this album were the most introspective of the evening’s selections. The most mundane. Imagine just a quiet piano underpinning for Perfect Crosses. Each song focused on the little tragedies and upheavals of everyday life. It’s hard to imagine an approach more different from the bombast of The Hold Steady.
This is an interesting conundrum for a long time fan like me. I love the frenetic energy and literary lyrics of The Hold Steady. But I also acknowledge Finn is his own man, rather than somebody I want him to be. He’s entering middle age. In many respects, it’s hard to maintain that kind of amped persona without becoming a caricature of yourself. As an artist, Finn is way too smart to ever go down that road. So he follows his own muse and writes today about the people, places and things which move him. The bottom line is that if you came to The Hold Steady because of his words, his last couple trips to town with The Uptown Controllers have been a worthwhile journey. If it was the pace and crashing guitars that drew you to The Hold Steady, this incarnation is probably a stretch. But as I mentioned before, the crowd that showed up seemed engaged with Finn the poet/novelist rather than Finn the rocker.
The same enthusiastic, spasmadic stage moves for which he is famous were still there. Subdued to match more subdued music, certainly. But this isn’t total re-invention. It’s more evolution. Whether this particular branch of the evolutionary tree will flourish, or simply end after something interesting, remains to be seen. Isn’t that what the best artists do? The balance shifts from doing what moves them to understanding and delivering something that their established audience demands. It’s that move from artist to one dimensional entertainer. The best have always managed to navigate this delicate balance. You expect some hardcore fans to throw up their hands and scream “WTF is this?”. You pick up some new admirers along the way. It’s only in retrospect, that each period fits into a continuum or larger cannon of work. The best artists explore the boundaries. They scratch an itch. Experiment. Sometimes the new music is panned by fans and critics alike; only to be appreciated with time.
I found myself pondering Finn’s career as I listened to those 17 songs. The set list was drawn almost entirely from the recent trilogy. He’s always been a writer who can slip inside the psyche of the off-beat or broken character. He puts them through events and challenges outside our own experience to see how they react. In this way, he’s similar to his friend Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers. Another artist who seems to have somewhat settled in life. They no longer attack life night after night from the stage. They seem more balanced. Perhaps a bit of success and financial security can do that for you. Some fans cry they’ve lost their rock and roll souls. Or sold out. But how can you begrudge an artist for finally achieving some peace and stability after 20 years in a beat up van, eating truck stop food? The lifestyle and all those killer parties can burn you to the ground.
These new songs stay the same course. The characters are more identifiable. They are not the oddballs we’ve come to know. They are more like you and me. People struggling against the tides of modern life. Finding a way to continue to soldier on despite the small daily defeats. Finn in The Hold Steady Finn is modern day Jack Kerouac or John Berriman. The Uptown Controller Craig Finn is more F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The man is a sponge and it’s intriguing to watch his literary boundaries expand. As they do, it seems as though he may be finding the language that allows him to write songs closer to his own personal experience. It’s always been one of the wonderful mysteries about writers like Finn and Hood. Do they sing stories of characters that exorcise their own personal demons? Or are they, in fact, simply astute observers reflecting the off kilter people they see?
I’ve never questioned the fact Finn is one smart cat. You don’t write with the sheer literary brilliance he has for the last 20 years without being smart and well read. However, that impression rang me like a bell when he introduced Grant In Galena. The refrain produced the title of the new album. As a kid who grew up not far from Grant’s home in Galena, and regularly piled into a yellow school bus for the obligatory class field trip, I know a bit about this particular president. Not many from outside the area or from outside the world of historical academia do. Finn reflected on the 7 year period which followed Grant’s initial retirement from the Army. Those years prior to the outbreak of The Civil War. He returned to Galena and took over the family business. Managed to drive it right into the ground. He ended up ruining his reputation and owing money all over town.
Fate intervened and put him back in a uniform where he led the Union Army to the victory which saved the nation. He returned a hero. That level of respect and adoration carried him to the presidency. The man couldn’t run a small business. But when the chips fell in the proper configuration, everything changed. The ultimate rags to riches story. All he needed was a new war.
I found Finn’s awareness of such arcane knowledge impressive. His ability to see the course of the story and to cast it quietly into a song of an everyday New Yorker hanging on by his fingernails, never giving up hope, is literary brilliance. It’s art of the highest order.
If you walked into The Fine Line looking for Hold Steady songs, I suspect you walked away disappointed. If you opened yourself to his words and the slow F. Scott Fitzgerald pacing of his descriptions of place and character, I suspect you walked away inspired. And I think that’s probably just the way Craig Finn wanted it. He refuses to be trapped by who he’s been and the expectations that go along with it. He seems an artist at peace. While The Hold Steady is always rock and roll with a literary bent, last night’s show with the Uptown Controllers was a series of short stories. Set to no more musical accompaniment than required to breathe life into them.
Lifter Puller was chapter one. The Hold Steady, an enduring chapter two. The trilogy of solo albums marks number three. I’m intrigued to see what comes next. Last night I moved beyond any discussions about which chapter is best. All those short stories are becoming a novel. We should no longer feel the need to draw any of interim conclusions until the last page is written.